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It’s been over two months since Oregon closed its emergency rent assistance program. In that time, safety nets for renters have continued to disappear, leaving hundreds of renters even more susceptible to eviction.

Since the beginning of the year, the number of evictions filings have crept closer to monthly averages seen before the pandemic.

Data collected by the Oregon Law Center shows that eviction numbers have increased steadily: 806 in January; 889 in February; 1,122 in March and 1,188 in April. Straus said May numbers are on track to be as high as the previous month.

And those numbers don’t begin to tell the full story of evictions, said Becky Straus, the managing attorney for the center’s Eviction Defense Project. That program provides renters with free legal help in evictions court.

“Most people feel forced to leave their unit when they get a notice from their landlord to move or when they are the victim of misinformation or harassment from their landlord,” Straus said. “We generally estimate that the displacement rate is about five times what we see in the eviction filings.”

Straus said the Oregon Law Center doesn’t have month-to-month data for eviction cases before the pandemic, because they only started manually collecting that information for the Eviction Defense Project in 2021. But she said there were 18,672 total filings in 2019. That’s an average of 1,556 eviction filings per month.

The state began distributing emergency rental assistance in May 2021, and has paid out more than $352 million. Although the program’s rollout was marred by delays and logistical errors, the state provided rent and utility assistance to nearly 54,000 applicants.

Oregon Housing and Community Services spokesperson Delia Hernández said as of May 18, the state still had about $30 million in emergency rental funds that haven’t yet been distributed. That includes $16 million Oregon recently received from the U.S Department of the Treasury that was reallocated from other states.

About 15,200 applications are still being processed, according to a state dashboard that tracks the program. Nearly 54,000 applications, or about half of those submitted, have been paid out or approved for funding. Another 28,500, just over a quarter of those submitted, were declined or found ineligible.

The state is also in the process of “recertifying” current applicants who may not have requested the full 15 months of assistance permitted by the U.S. Treasury, and may need additional rent. But those funds are not available to new applicants.

Between 50 and 66% of the evictions for each of the past four months have been due to nonpayment of rent, according to data from the Oregon Law Center. And, Straus said, about half of the nonpayment rent cases the Oregon Law Center handles end in renters getting displaced.

Over the past several months, many landlords said they have taken a hit as tenants miss rent payments. Some said hiccups in the state’s rental assistance program made the problem worse, such as a slow rollout of funds or the state sending checks to the wrong people.

Community action agencies have distributed funds outside of the state emergency rental portal, giving some tenants other avenues for aid.

Nkenge Harmon Johnson, the CEO of Urban League of Portland, said the organization distributes rent assistance via multiple sources of funding, including from the CARES Act. She said she wasn’t aware of any people served by the Urban League who had been evicted, as those funds provided a safety net even as the state ran into issues with its program.

But Harmon Johnson said there still aren’t enough resources to meet everyone’s needs, with high rent prices putting even more pressure on tenants.

“One thing the state portal did well was to pay rents a month or two in advance,” Harmon Johnson wrote in an email to The Oregonian/OregonLive. “Once those rent credits are exhausted, we think Oregon will see evictions rise this autumn.”

Tenants take action

As legal aid and community groups work to keep up with the pace of evictions cases, a group of tenants is also working on a ballot measure campaign that would give all tenants the right to free eviction representation in court.

Members of the Eviction Representation for All campaign began collecting signatures this week and hope to get the measure on November’s ballot. It would impose a 0.75% capital gains tax on residents, and is estimated to generate an average of $15 million a year.

The measure would guarantee tenants a right to a lawyer if they’re evicted, as well as impose stronger protections for tenants throughout the courts process. It would allow tenants to apply for grants to get smaller amounts of rent paid while they wait for rent assistance to kick in, or to get landlord fees paid off if they get evicted.

“In court, if there’s a lawyer, it’s almost always for the landlord,” said Colleen Carroll, an organizer with the campaign who helped found the renters advocacy group Don’t Evict PDX.

“This is not a way to open a court proceeding – one side gets knowledge and resources the other doesn’t have. It’s almost guaranteed the person gets displaced.”

Carroll said funds generated from that measure would be distributed to community action agencies and allow them to hire their own lawyers to represent tenants in eviction court. Carroll said currently, tenants have to go through a law firm to get eviction representation, something that many find daunting and prevents them from getting help.

The ballot measure would ensure that anyone who gets an eviction notice is automatically eligible for a lawyer.

Currently, Carroll said, eviction representation services end up leaving out the people who are most in need and have the fewest resources.

“It can be too hard to prove you need assistance. Compound that with immigration status, and the need to fight to have a lawyer,” Carroll said. “People just forgo it.”

And, Carroll said, while nonpayment of rent makes up around half of evictions filings, landlords were finding ways to displace tenants during the eviction moratorium – and many tenants didn’t have a way to push back without a lawyer.

“I sat in on some court hearings where the landlord was evicting someone for things like plants on the balcony or the tv being too loud,” Carroll said. “Even if the tenant was saying they owed three months’ back rent and couldn’t be evicted for that, the landlord found another way to evict them.”

Eviction inequities

Harmon Johnson said Urban League staff have also noticed an increase in landlords trying to evict tenants for basic violations. As a result, she said, the organization’s fair housing enforcement program is busy with calls and referrals from tenants who are threatened with homelessness for minor lease infractions.

“That is a ripple effect where landlords have agreed to accept rent payments from the Urban League or the state, and perhaps forgive a portion of past due rent, but are stepping up their aggressive and often targeted bias against tenants, many of whom are Black, in order to evict them and raise the rent for the next tenant,” Harmon Johnson wrote. “Renters who are current on their rent are still vulnerable in this housing market.”

Several national studies show that renters of color, especially Black and Latino renters, disproportionately face eviction filings. A study by Eviction Lab also showed that the rates are even higher for Black and Latina women nationwide. Demographic-specific data about Oregon evictions was not immediately available.

Straus said it’s unclear how many renters face eviction because they are unable to repay rent that they missed during the eviction moratorium, which ran from April 2020 through June 2021.

But she said things have gotten worse as evictions protections dwindle, such as the so-called “safe harbor protections” the Oregon Legislature passed to provide renters with a buffer from evictions. To qualify, tenants must apply for rental assistance and show their landlord proof of their application at or before their first court appearance. That protection expires Sept. 30.

Still, Straus encouraged people who are at risk of eviction to seek legal help.

The Oregon Law Center has hired about 20 new lawyers in the past year for its Eviction Defense Project. That has allowed them to help exponentially more renters than in the past, said Straus, the group’s managing attorney.

But Straus said the evictions process moves quickly and is unforgiving, making it easy for tenants to get displaced within as little as a month of filing in evictions court.

“That’s not a problem to be putting on tenants, but on the evictions court system as a whole,” she said. “We’ve learned about what works. Rent assistance works, having access to lawyers works and having a process where the wheels of evictions court slow down and provide opportunities for tenants to get help works.”

—Jayati Ramakrishnan

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