Thousands of Oregon renters could soon be evicted
The unpaid rent grew quickly in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic on the 3,500 rental units Andie Smith manages.
Though renters in Oregon couldn’t be evicted for not paying rent through June 2021 because of eviction moratoriums, that back rent still accrued.
The people renting the properties Smith manages – which are owned by investment groups including retirement funds and pensions – got behind by about $3 million as they struggled to pay bills. One tenant fell behind in rent by $40,000.
Renters now have to pay that back money or can be evicted. The state’s protection expired Tuesday.
The state is now preparing to send notices to landlords of 3,791 people who applied for emergency rental assistance and were denied. Combined with the expiration of legislative protection, it is expected to lead to a spike in evictions in the coming weeks.
Oregon’s rental assistance program was aimed at renters and not those who provided their housing.
That created a system where landlords have had to rely on tenants to tell them they were denied help from the state. If renters failed to do that, the landlords can start evicting people when they receive that determination in the coming days and weeks.
“It’s going to look like all of a sudden providers lost their minds when in reality it’s a direct result of a decision that OHCS made to not send the notices out of denial as they happened in 2021,” Deborah Imse, executive director of Multifamily NW, said.
Renters can’t be evicted for non-payment if they show their landlord proof they applied for rental assistance by June 30. A law was passed in an emergency session of the state Legislature providing “safe harbor” as renters await a determination by the state on their application.
Some have caught up, others still wait
Through the assistance program, many renters in Oregon caught up on past-due rent. About 40,000 people have gotten help. Renters were allowed to apply for up to 12 months of back rent.
But there are still millions of dollars owed.
Some people who applied for rental assistance received a determination of whether they would receive help quickly. Some didn’t.
“I received a denial notice earlier this month for somebody who had applied at the end of July,” said Smith, who has worked for the housing provider for nine years. “It took from the end of July to Feb. 3rd to receive that notice. We luckily have the current communication in there, but (the state) didn’t even have the correct landlord information.”
The state received $204 million from the federal government in 2021 to provide emergency rental assistance. After it opened the program, it was swamped with applicants. The Legislature passed multiple bills in 2021 to to keep those who applied for help from being evicted while the state worked through the backlog, provided they showed proof of their application to their landlord.
But as of March 1, those who owed rent accrued from April 2020 to June 2021 must pay that back rent or landlords can now take steps to collect that money, including by eviction.
The state isn’t saying exactly when it anticipates sending the notices to landlords, but they won't all be at once.
Delia Hernandez, spokesperson for Oregon Housing and Community Services, said 3,290 applicants who were denied for reasons including receiving assistance from another source or having too much income have had their denials reported to their landlords.
Another 3,129 are in pre-denial, which means they likely won’t get help and their landlord likely will soon be told they're denied.
Then there are the landlords of 3,791 applicants who have been formally denied are soon going to receive notices their tenants won’t be getting help.
“Those are gradual,” she said. “We’re not going to grab them all and send them.”
Evictions already on the rise
Evictions for non-payment in Oregon spiked to 566 in November, from 361 in July, according to data compiled by the Oregon Law Center. Evictions fell to 437 in January and were back up to 497 in February.
“I expect we’ll see larger upticks in March and April,” Becky Straus, an attorney for the Oregon Law Center, said.
Landlords are required to give renters 10 days notice of eviction. Tenants who are summoned to eviction court can get free help from the Oregon Law Center’s Eviction Defense Project at (888) 585-9638 or at oregonlawcenter.org/eviction-defense-project.
Hernandez said the department will announce when it will stop taking new applications for the program – which was funded by $100 million dedicated by the state Legislature last year – later this week.
“The likelihood of the assistance remaining, like I said, is pretty iffy,” Imse said. “That’s going to leave a huge amount of housing providers that are never going to get the money that they’re entitled to get for past due rent. It’s going to cause providers to lose thousands of dollars."
Smith said people who have been counting on the state assistance to pay their back rent and are denied have few options for making up that debt. She said it’s difficult to make payments when someone is six months behind on rent.
“I have residents that come to me worried, stressed, crying, all of that, wondering what’s going on with their application,” Smith said.