Oregonian renters unable to pay rent were granted a moratorium starting late March, about a month after the first COVID-19 case was found in the state and many lost their jobs. Each time the moratorium neared its end, it was extended with mere days to spare.
However, the latest moratorium legislation set a due date. Renters have until July 1 to pay back what’s owed. Housing activists and landlords alike wonder how many renters will have the money by July, considering little has altered the conditions that called for a moratorium to begin with.
Some experts and advocates are predicting a mass eviction eventthat could cost the state billions come July if politicians don’t act.
“We’re genuinely fearing pretty much an apocalypse scenario,” said Tim Morris, board president of the Springfield Eugene Tenant Association. “We are almost solely dependent on what the governor, the Legislature and our county commission are willing and able to do.”
What advocates see coming
Researchers at Portland State University predict that the state could face a costly catastrophe come July, according to a report released early this month by its Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative.
Using a cost of eviction calculator developed by the University of Arizona, the report’s authors estimate mass evictions predicted to occur in July — once the eviction moratorium expires — will cost the state between $1 billion and $3.3 billion. The calculator looks at the major costs associated with eviction: emergency shelter, medical care, child welfare service and child delinquency.
Despite the high numbers, it’s likely an undercount, said Lisa Bates, associate professor and Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative researcher. There are other costs that aren’t part of the calculations as well as costs the state will pay for years to come.
“These numbers come from a calculator that is pre-COVID time, so increased actual costs of COVID transmission are not really well built in,” Bates said. “Additionally, we know that housing instability and displacement has knock-on effects (consequences) throughout a person’s life.”
While the state would ultimately have to pay the price of a mass eviction event through emergency shelters and other costs, it will be communities of color that disproportionately bear the burden of displacement, researchers said.
According to a survey of 460 Oregon tenants conducted by Bates, 34.8% of general respondents owe back rent, but 56% of respondents who rent are Black, Indigenous and people of color owe back rent.
“We know that the impacts of COVID on low-wage earners are disparately impacting communities of color,” said Marisa Zapata, director of the collaborative. “So, we’ll just continue to see that magnify.”
Local activists and organizations also spot the potential for a coming crisis.
The Springfield Eugene Tenant Association, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting renters, runs a tenant hotline for people seeking help. In the eight months prior to the pandemic, the hotline received about 200 calls. In the nearly four months between Oct. 20, 2020, to Jan. 31, the association’s hotline received 263 calls — 84 in January, 65 in December and 114 from Oct. 20 to Nov. 30.
Callers ask questions that range from discrimination to habitability to rent increases. Staff said about a quarter of the calls during the pandemic have been about evictions, whether the caller received one or is fearing one.
The uptick in residents seeking eviction-related guidance, despite the executive orders and legislation meant to protect them, paints a clear picture for staff at SETA.
“There’s going to be a lot of issues when the eviction moratorium ends,” said Morris, board president of SETA. “We think that there will be an absurd amount of eviction filings.”
Lane County saw 526 eviction filings in 2020, a 70% decrease in filings as compared to 2019, when there were 1,699. In 2018, there were 1,714 and in 2017, 1,936. Just because a landlord filed for an eviction, doesn’t mean they won.
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A short, hectic history of Oregon pandemic rent moratoriums
Gov. Kate Brown issued three orders preventing pandemic evictions, since March 22, 2020.
Lawmakers passed House Bill 4213 on June 26 extending the moratorium until Sept. 30. They also created a six-month repayment period for deferred rent and other charges.
Oregon lawmakers then passed HB 4401 on Dec. 21, extending the eviction moratorium for those who still needed it to June 30, 2021.
The most recent bill also set aside $50 million for rent relief and created a $150 million landlord relief fund to compensate landlords for up to 80% of unpaid rent with state money. Registration for the fund opened last week.
Legislators gave renters until July 1, 2021, to repay any rent or other charges accrued from April 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021. According to the legislation, tenants will need to begin paying monthly rent under the terms of their rental agreement on July 1, 2021.
Tenants who don’t submit a signed document declaring financial hardship, as per HB 4401’s requirements, have until March 30, 2021 to repay any rents or other charges accrued between April 1 and Dec. 31, 2020.
Owed rent totals are growing
In the meantime, owed rents are stacking up.
A September report prepared for the National Council of State Housing Agenciesby Stout estimated that by January 2021 Oregon renters would owe about $378 million in back rent and as many as 200,000 renters have little to no confidence in their ability to pay next month’s rent.
Five months later, the total could be larger.
The need for rent assistance in the county is clear. In 2020, Lane County government received and dispersed $6.4 million in federal rent relief funds. Staff estimate the funding helped 1 in every 100 Lane County households.
But so far, the need has far outweighed the funding. The county received 700 applications in the first hour of opening applications for the last round of relief, 2,667 total.
Landlords also at a loss
As experts anticipate an onslaught of evictions, landlords are left wondering how much of their owed rents they’ll see come July.
Tia Politi, president of Lane County’s Rental Owners Association, said she’s seen local landlords forced to sell their properties due to the loss of rent over the past year, while some refinanced their homes to pay bills including mortgages, taxes and insurance.
There’s hope that some renters will have the money they owe by July 1, but Politi said the potential for landlords not seeing the owed rent is “a big concern.”
The landlord assistance fund, part of HB 4401, set aside $150 million to compensate landlords up to 80% of unpaid rent with state money, if they forgive their renters’ debts, but prioritizes small landlords who have missed the most income this year.
Hours after the bill passed, three Portland landlords filed a lawsuit asking to be allowed to evict for nonpayment of rent or, alternatively, paid adequately by the state for their loss of rent money, as reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting.
“The (Landlord Compensation) funding is estimated to be, from my understanding, less than half of what is needed,” Politi said. “So, it’s a piece of the puzzle.”
‘People are being as responsible as they can be’
Homes for Good, the local public housing authority and one of the county’s largest landlords, has many tenants in need of help.
“There’s a myth out there that people are not paying landlords because this moratorium is in place,” said Jacob Fox, executive director of Homes for Good.
“I just want to be clear that’s a myth. We are engaged with (our residents) and people are really struggling from a loss of income, medical costs associated with COVID, or even other medical challenges. What we know is that people are being as responsible as they can be.”
The organization has not only been impacted by the moratoriums on rent, it’s had to adjust the subsidies it provides for tenants in some of its federally funded programs. For many federal rent assistance programs, tenants pay rent based on their income.
More than 450 Lane County households in the Housing Choice Voucher Program, 15% of the tenants, asked for rent decreases. This increased the amount of subsidy Homes for Good provides to participants by $117,000 per month. On a yearly basis, this will mean the voucher program will cost Homes for Good an additional $1.4 million, according to the organization’s calculations. If this loss of income isn’t recouped with federal funds, Homes for Good could have to lower the number of vouchers it funds by 10% or more, costing hundreds of households their vouchers.
In Homes for Good’s apartment communities, 190 households, 25%, asked for rent decreases, which has reduced rent revenue by $45,000 per month.
The residents living in these homes also have struggled to pay rent. The total amount of uncollected rentin Homes for Good apartments for April through December is $49,385. The January uncollected rent, as of Jan. 26, totaled at $35,799.
Residents in apartments owned, but not managed, by Homes for Good also have struggled to pay rent. The total amount of uncollected rent for April through December is $104,000, representing 3.9% of the gross potential rent revenue. The January uncollected rent, through Jan. 26, was $20,000.
“For us, the rent moratorium is absolutely the right thing to do,” Fox said. “The hidden costs associated with landlords being able to evict people that aren’t paying rent, that sort of downstream cost is just staggering, frankly, to think about.”
To avoid the catastrophe some experts are anticipating, the organization is educating tenants on the impending due date. Fox is optimistic that the federal stimulus money as well as state rent assistance funds will help bridge the gap. However, if Homes for Good residents are unable the pay they owe in the summer, the organization is prepared to get creative to avoid evicting people amidst a pandemic.
“Homes for Good will look internally at different flexible funding within our own organization, and we may create our own rent assistance fund (to) really help people get their ledgers to zero balance,” Fox said.
Many small landlords won’t have that option.
What can be done
Landlords and housing advocates are looking to lawmakers for more action.
Like Fox, Politi said she’s hopeful that once passed, federal stimulus money will go toward unpaid rents.
“People need shelter, and mass evictions will help no one. It will devastate the community,” Politi said.
She’s also looking toward Senate Bill 87, which is currently before the state Legislature.
The bill would create an income tax credit for lost rental income of landlords. It would apply to tax years beginning on or after Jan. 1, 2020, and before Jan. 1, 2021.
“We’ve got to push really hard for legislators to pass that tax credit part because that’s going to be huge,” Politi said. “Renter advocates have been asking for rent forgiveness. Well, give me a tax credit, baby, and I will forgive, but I’ve got my own bills to pay.”
Morris, of the Springfield Eugene Tenant Association, said he’s hoping there will be another extension of the eviction moratorium or an extended rent grace period come July.
Fox said there’s “been a desire” to create a statewide rent assistance program that would look similar to the Federal Housing Choice Voucher Program.
Other solutions floated by advocates include reasonable repayment time to make up backlogged rent, expanding emergency rent assistance programs and increasing access to landlord-tenant mediation.
All the potential solutions would be costly, but doing nothing could cost much more, experts argue.
“We’ve already been facing a homelessness crisis. And we cannot possibly hope to get our arms around that and support folks who are already experiencing homelessness if we then add on top of that thousands and thousands of more people,” Bates said.
“It just makes more sense for people who are housed to stay housed. It’s more efficient, more effective and frankly, more humane.”
The county will soon receive $11.4 million in federal funds for the new Emergency Rental Assistance program and are in the process of determining how best to get those funds out while meeting the program requirements. They are collecting email addresses for people who wish to be notified of the next available funding. They can sign up at lanecounty.org/rent or at www.surveymonkey.com/r/XJWNSZL.
With county funding, DevNorthwest is providing foreclosure avoidance counseling.
The Springfield Eugene Tenant Association Hotline can be reached at 541-972-3715.
Timeline of Oregon pandemic rent moratoriums
March 22, 2020: Gov. Kate Brown issued Executive Order No. 20-11 aimed at preventing pandemic evictions, which was set to last for 90 days.
April 1: Brown’s Executive Order 20-13 created a statewide moratorium on certain evictions and terminations of rental agreements, which was set to end June 30.
June 26: Oregon lawmakers passed House Bill 4213, extending the moratorium until Sept. 30. They also created a six-month repayment period for deferred rent and other charges.
Sept. 28: Brown signed another order (No. 20-56) extending the state moratorium until Dec. 31.
Dec. 21: Oregon lawmakers passed HB 4401, extending the eviction moratorium for those who still needed it to June 30, 2021.It also set aside $50 million for rent relief and created a $150 million landlord relief fund to compensate landlords for up to 80% of unpaid rent with state money.
Contact reporter Tatiana Parafiniuk-Talesnick at Tatiana@registerguard.com or 541-521-7512, and follow her on Twitter @TatianaSophiaPT. Want more stories like this? Subscribe to get unlimited access and support local journalism.