A new bill passed by the Oregon Legislature will give renters an additional eight months to pay back rent owed due to the pandemic’s impact on the economy. But with the state’s eviction moratorium set to expire July 1, housing advocates are concerned by what could be a local humanitarian crisis this summer.
“We’re a state that will have an eviction crisis on our hands as early as July this year,” Kim McCarty, executive director of the Community Alliance of Tenants, told The Skanner. “And the reason we feel that is because if you look at census data nationally, and specifically for Oregon, it shows that most low-income tenants are not going to be back to work, they have a very low confidence in their ability to be able to pay rent or catch up with rent over the next couple of months. And you couple that with the fact that the rent assistance that’s available to everyone might take a few months for that to be fully available.”
While the new February 2022 deadline for unpaid rent might ease the minds of some, it will do nothing to protect renters who cannot come up with their rent for July in full. An extension of the current ban on evictions was not included in Senate Bill 282, the latest in renters’ protections from the capitol.
McCarty noted that many states have extended eviction moratoriums past the end of June, with New York setting a new deadline at the end of August.
“What we’re advocating for is an extension of the eviction moratorium through the recovery period for when the federal government is offering assistance,” McCarty said. “That assistance will be coming to us in various forms between now and September 2022, recognizing it’s going to take time for each state to set up their systems, get this into the hands of landlords and tenants. And so if we know it’s going to take that long to spend the money, why wouldn’t we put in place protections to make sure that people are safe from eviction, safe from potential exposure to COVID?
"We feel it’s a win-win if there's still an eviction moratorium, because landlords will still get their whatever rent was due to them.”
A collaborative study by CAT and Portland State University conducted last summer showed that 56% of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) tenants owed some amount of back rent, compared to 35% of the general population of renters in Oregon. That number somewhat obscures the actual rent crisis in the state, however: The same study showed that at least 53% of surveyed tenants have cut back on essentials like food and medications in order to meet rent.
Relief is available for many renters thanks to the passage of House Bill 4401 last December, which devotes $150 million to resolve 80% of rent arrears for eligible landlords. Those taking part would agree to forgive any other outstanding pandemic-era debt from tenants.
Locally, the COVID-19 Rent Relief Program (CVRRP) is funded by the City of Portland CARES Coronavirus Relief Funds, and prioritizes applicants of the BIPOC community -- a group that has statistically been hit the hardest by the pandemic. The program is facilitated through a partnership between the Portland Housing Bureau, Home Forward, the Multnomah county, and CVRRP community partners.
But an upper-end estimate of total rent owed in Oregon for this period stood at about $378 million, according to findings issued by Portland State University's Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative in February. That means the state would have needed to allocate twice as much as it did to CVRRP to meet 80% of the debt.
And leaders from the 16 culturally responsive CVRRP community partners in Portland are seeing the shortfall firsthand.
Pastor Herman Greene, a ministry partner working with Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, estimates his church network has helped about 100 families with rent assistance this year. As of press time, however, Greene said he was down to the last $3,000 disbursement the church would be able to make with the latest round of funding, leaving about 30 families on the waiting list.
“About 98% of the people that we serve are from the community and different places and have never come to our church,” Greene said. “But they depend on us to go out, to go to these meetings, to follow these bills, to really pay attention to what’s happening, keep our ear to the ground about where money is coming from.”
Brown Hope, said his organization has helped Black applicants from 236 households this year, and had the funding to help 69 households with rent assistance in 2020. He took issue with what he saw as unnecessary red tape to accessing these funds.Cameron Whitten, founder and CEO of
“Our communities are right now in the middle of crisis, and it’s been very challenging to help these families navigate this bureaucratic process to get them the financial help that they need right now,” Whitten told The Skanner. “The other issue that’s a huge injustice currently within the program is the landlord has to 100 percent participate. If a landlord doesn’t do that, we can’t provide rent relief.”
While organizations like Brown Hope work with applicants to determine eligibility, the landlord must provide documentation, including a W-9, in order to receive the funds. But many CVRRP partners reported a jarring lack of response from landlords.
Hamdi Ali, the youth program director for the African Youth & Community Organization (AYCO), told The Skanner that in working to allocate the $197,000 her organization was given to disperse for rent relief this year, she and her colleagues had to skip about 10% of the 180 applications they had received due to landlord non-response.
“If it’s that hard to contact them to pay them, I wonder how responsive they are to maintenance requests,” Ali said.
“There is nothing more heartbreaking than saying to a struggling family that we cannot help them because we didn’t hear from their landlord, and that’s the only reason we can’t help them,” Whitten said, adding that Brown Hope had about four such cases last year. “Putting some compassion with landlords, they also are dealing with a lot of uncertainty. Everyone is stressed out, and the relief that is available is confusing and hard to navigate. These are hard times, and the best way to resolve these issues is to make these programs as transparent and responsive as possible.”
He urged direct cash assistance to low-income families.
In the CAT survey, 23% of renters reported their landlords weren’t communicating with them at all. Perhaps not surprisingly, 85% of respondents to the same survey reported experiencing physical or mental health stress related to rent.
Meanwhile, incidents of harassment from landlords appear to be on the rise.
“We know that our low-income households are doubling up, and they’re doubling up because of the wildfires, because of COVID,” McCarty said. “And so all of these pressures put people more at risk of harassment and violations of their lease terms, and so there’s not only the economic instability of housing, but there’s also the relationship instability, because our communities of color are experiencing high rates of harassment.”
According to CAT, 22% of tenants reported their landlords were being “hostile, harassing, or threatening.” Some tenants have still received no-cause eviction notices, despite the moratorium; others report being hit with high fees to break a lease they can no longer afford due to the pandemic. McCarty says that CAT has noticed an increase in 24-hour eviction notices, often used when a landlord argues that a tenant is engaging in dangerous or illicit behavior.
“It’s interesting because when you look at the data statewide, landlords never used that before, so why is that suddenly tenants have become more egregious?” McCarty said.
“It seems that landlords are looking for loopholes, and that’s one illustration of the type of harassment that tenants are experiencing.”
The PSU report concluded that allowing evictions to be carried out could cost the state up to $3.3 billion in costs associated with displacement -- although that amount does not include increase in the demand for public assistance or the costs associated with increased COVID transmissions among the newly unhoused. This is more than eight times the cost of bringing all back rent current.
“This is not a new crisis,” McCarty said. “It’s just that in this crisis, eviction could mean a higher likelihood of death because of COVID.”
Greene gave an on-the-ground account of how integral relief funding has been in his community. For one, he said many of the households he has worked with are consistently three months behind on rent, with many accruing late fees. Because rent relief cannot go to utilities, many families struggle to keep the lights on, he said.
“I try to explain, ‘I’m not a utility, but if you didn’t have to worry about paying rent this month, would you be able to take some of that money and apply it to some of your utilities and find relief that way?’” Green told The Skanner.
Even limited-term funding can be a lifeline, he explained.
“Imagine you’re six, seven months behind in your rent, and the moratorium is about to be up. If someone comes in and says, ‘I can take care of five of those six months,’ now you start bargaining and negotiating with the rest of the time. You think, ‘I can rob Peter to pay Paul, I can shift this over here, I can put something on it.’ And then you might find organizations that might be able to help.
"It’s easier to help someone come up with (the remaining) $3,000 than it is with $10,000.
"What we’re doing, I feel, is we’re really just trying to provide relief for families so they don’t have a lot of added undue stress about things they can’t control.”
To be protected under the current eviction moratorium, tenants must submit a declaration letter. For more information, visit https://www.oregoncat.org/legal-protections-for-tenants
The next round of emergency rent assistance opens May 19. To apply, visit https://www.oregon.gov/ohcs/housing-assistance/Pages/emergency-rental-assistance.aspx