Dirk Vanderhart

Since 2017, Portland landlords who increase a tenant's rent by 10 percent or more have been required to cover the cost of renter relocation—that is, if the tenant decides to move because they can no longer afford rent. The program requires rent-hiking landlords to pay between $2,900 to $4,500 in relocation fees, depending on the size of the leased home.

But now, in the grips of an economic crisis spurred by a global pandemic, the protections offered by the "renter relo" program aren't enough. On Tuesday, Mayor Ted Wheeler announced he'd be asking Portland City Council to approve an ordinance that would expand the program to apply to landlords who make any rent increases before the end of the year (including hikes below 10 percent).

"Right now, with thousands of renters not able to pay current rent, it's likely that any rent increase would force renters to have to relocate," Wheeler said at a morning press conference.

Portland City Council will vote on the proposed expansion on September 16. If approved, the change will go immediately into effect and last until the end of 2020.

Multnomah County—and the state—has been under an eviction moratorium since April, allowing tenants to delay rent payments until March 31, 2021. But that policy, which is set to expire on September 30, has not stopped landlords from raising rent. For those already unable to pay rent during the pandemic, an added lease hike only pushes them closer toward what Wheeler called a "tidal wave of evictions."

This wave was initially expected to crash as early as October 1, when the state and local eviction moratorium lifts and standard monthly rent payments are due. That date has since been pushed to December 31 by the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which announced its own nationwide eviction moratorium last week.

The delay does nothing to lessen the debt of Portlanders who haven't been able to pay rent due to job loss or health issues related to COVID-19. At the Tuesday press conference, Wheeler echoed concerns long raised by affordable housing nonprofits that tenants still won't be able to pay back months of unpaid rent by the state's March 31 deadline.

Wheeler said that, based on city data collected before COVID-19 hit Portland, it would take the average Black Portland family nearly six months to repay just one month of back rent.

"We are only postponing a much bigger problem without some bold action in the next four months," Wheeler said.

Extending the renter relocation program may act as a deterrent against raising rents over the next months. But it only offers a short-term solution to address this looming crisis.

Wheeler said he's expecting more action from Gov. Kate Brown's office before the end of the year to address the growing debts, but said local officials have given up on pushing state leaders to completely erase rent payments. Wheeler said he believed the national call to "cancel rent" would only push the problem onto property owners.

"The work we can do right here and now is keep as many people in their homes as possible throughout the remainder of this public health emergency," he said.

Wheeler announced another way the city could accomplish that goal Tuesday: Rerouting $500,000 in Portland Housing Bureau dollars to help "cost burdened" renters with rent payments. That funding will be dispersed through different community organizations that already connect tenants with rent assistance.

That funding will be prioritized for low-income communities of color, reflecting the population's disproportionate need.

Since May, some 12 to 14 percent of Portland renters have been unable to make rent payments, according to city data. That rate increases to around 20 percent for tenants living in older, outdated homes in far East Portland, which are disproportionally occupied by non-white renters.

"Once again," Wheeler noted. "Our most vulnerable populations are set up to fail."