Renita Whitney hasn’t had steady employment since March 2020, when she had to quit her job to stay home with her 10-year-old daughter after the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools. But lately, it feels like she has a new job: Trying to apply for rental assistance.
Every morning, Whitney wakes early to start calling 211 and other rental assistance numbers, listening to pre-recorded messages and leaving voicemails, asking for help.
“It’s like whack-a-mole,” Whitney, 52, said. “I don’t know what to do… no one has gotten back to me. I’m really afraid of what’s going to happen.”
Whitney is one of the thousands of Oregonians who don't believe they’ll be able to pay rent on July 1, a day after the state moratorium on evictions due to non-payment of rent lifts. Whitney hasn’t been able to pay her monthly $915 rent on her Gresham apartment since spring 2020, when she left her full-time job as a customer service representative and her adult daughter moved out of her home, cutting off a second reliable source of income. Whitney picked up a weekend job at a warehouse to help cover the household bills, but the meager hours and income wasn’t worth the effort. She said the statewide eviction ban has prevented her and her younger daughter from becoming homeless. But with the policy set to expire in two weeks, and no one responding to her requests for aid, Whitney isn’t sure what the future holds.
“Should I start packing my shit up?” she said. “I don’t know. I’ve been on the streets before, and I can’t do that again.”
Data from a recent US Census poll shows that at least 5 percent of Oregon renters were confident they couldn’t pay June rent, with another Census survey showing that 27 percent of tenants were behind on rent payments in May. While state legislation has granted Oregon tenants until February 2022 to repay rent missed during the pandemic, there are few protections for renters whose finances haven’t yet recovered from the pandemic’s economic downturn—keeping them from having rent money for July 1.
"I've been on the streets before, and I can’t do that again."
In the face of an expected spike in evictions due to non-payment come July, state lawmakers are considering Senate Bill 278, legislation that would protect tenants from eviction for 60 days, provided they give their landlords proof that they’ve applied for rental assistance. Tenants would only be allowed to use this protection one time.
“The purpose is simple,” said Sybil Hebb, an attorney with the Oregon Law Center who helped draft the legislation, speaking at a Monday legislative hearing. “No one who is in line for rent assistance should face eviction for nonpayment. This will ensure stability for renters who are doing what they can.”
This grace period, which critical conservative lawmakers have labeled another “moratorium,” could give the state more time to disperse federal rent assistance dollars that have been slow to reach tenants. The state received $204 million in federal funds to support renters in early spring 2020, and began accepting applications online from eligible tenants on May 19.
Connor McDonnell, a spokesperson with the state-run Oregon Housing and Community Services, said this delay was caused solely by the federal government, which gave delayed and “contradictory” guidance to the state on how it was allowed to spend the money.
The state reports that since May, more than 10,000 Oregon households have applied for rent assistance through the program. The majority of those requesting assistance are living in the Portland metro region: The program has received applications from over 7,000 households located in Multnomah County alone since May 19, according to county spokesperson Ryan Yambra. The county has also been using other funding sources—from the federal CARES Act to state and local government budgets—to offer rent assistance to around 6,800 households since the pandemic began.
Whitney isn’t sure if she’s in line to receive any of that support, since she hasn’t received confirmation from the state or local assistance programs she’s tried to contact. She’s not alone. The government agencies and community organizations tasked with distributing these funds say they’ve been overwhelmed with the demand, and it’s kept dollars from getting out the door quickly.
“It’s the volume of need, that’s the problem,” said Karina Holland, director of the housing nonprofit JOIN, which processes a portion of rent assistance requests that come through the county. “We have case workers working double time to get these applications processed. It is way more than we have ever seen. What I can say is that it's enough that caseworkers are starting to panic. Our leadership is starting to panic.”
Holland supports the proposed legislation, but says she hopes lawmakers vote “with their eyes wide open.”
“It will not be enough,” said Holland. “There will be a lot of people who fall off the cliff into houselessness, even if they pass this [bill]. It’s still not enough to support people. Even if we were able to fix every single capacity strain to get this money out the door now, it would still take time to implement fixes.”
The state has requested that $30 million in the federal American Rescue Plan Act funds allocated for Oregon go toward community organizations that assist tenants to address the need. If approved, those funds won’t be distributed until the fall. The state is also expecting $222 million in additional rent assistance funds from the federal government by the fall. An estimated $41 million of that package has been earmarked for government agencies in the Portland metro area.
Landlords and property management companies are skeptical of the legislation, saying it unfairly punishes landlords for the state’s inability to coordinate its rent assistance program.
"We have case workers working double time to get these applications processed. It is way more than we have ever seen. Our leadership is starting to panic."
“This is the state’s fault for not getting money out on time,” said Ron Garcia, director of Rental Housing Alliance Oregon, during the Monday legislative hearing. “Landlords have been funding this crisis for over a year now.”
As weeks turn to days before the moratorium lifts, tenants are starting to panic.
Whitney has plans to send her younger daughter to visit her older daughter in Las Vegas before June ends, so she can handle an uncertain move—maybe into cheaper housing, if she’s granted rent aid—in July. She hasn’t told her daughter that they could be evicted.
“She doesn’t know what’s going on,” said Whitney. “I don’t want to project that stress onto her. I don’t want her to worry. She’s too young.”
Others are turning to the community for support. Thirty-year-old Kat Hemme moved into a duplex in Portland’s Portsmouth neighborhood with their 3-year-old child in December 2019. When Hemme’s nanny quit at the start of the pandemic, Hemme left their nonprofit job and left school to stay home with their child, leaving them with no income or student loans to cover rent. Hemme said this change instantly soured their once-sunny relationship with their landlord.
“Before I stopped paying rent, he was extremely responsive and friendly to me and my child, and eager to come by and fix things,” said Hemme. “Then everything changed.”
Once Hemme could no longer afford rent, they said their landlord refused to attend to maintenance issues and would often yell at them for missing rent. In September 2020, Hemme’s landlord issued an eviction notice because squatters had briefly moved into Hemme’s apartment when Hemme and their child were on a trip visiting family, and were "disturbing the peace." Hemme, horrified by this news, had a friend ask the squatters to leave before they returned home, but still spent a month having to prove to their landlord that it wasn't Hemme who was causing the disturbance. The landlord did not follow through with the eviction.
Then, in February, Hemme woke up around 2 am to a stranger banging loudly on their front door. Terrified, Hemme called their mom, and first responders eventually showed up. They later learned that the late-night visitor was a patient from a residential behavioral health center next door. After Hemme’s neighbor complained to their landlord about the disturbance, Hemme received yet another eviction notice. A Multnomah County judge dismissed the case in April, after Hemme's landlord withdrew from the case.
Hemme’s lawyer, Doug Hageman, who Hemme found through the group Don't Evict PDX, said he’s seen an increase in these types of “for cause” or “just cause” evictions—ones that are linked to a specific lease violation—during the moratorium, directed at tenants who’ve been unable to pay rent. The state moratorium only applies to "for cause" evictions due to non-payment of rent and “no cause” evictions—evictions that aren’t tied to a clear lease violation.
“We’ve absolutely seen a lot of cases based on pettier problems, that in the past, might have just been resolved by a landlord evicting someone without cause,” said Hageman. “I recently saw a property manager evict three or four people who weren’t paying rent because they had not bought renters insurance—basically finding a new way to punish people who can’t afford payments right now.”
A July 2020 study by Portland State University found that 22 percent of Portland landlords have been reportedly harassing tenants in the months since the pandemic began.
Unlike the estimated thousands of Portlanders who have been evicted during the moratorium, Hemme hasn’t been forcibly removed from their home for these infractions. But they’re preparing for a more concrete notice once they miss July rent. Hemme has applied for financial assistance for people impacted by the pandemic in the past, and received $500 in December through a Pride Northwest fund, but hasn’t been able to secure any financial aid for rent assistance. Hemme hasn’t been able to return to work, and doesn’t have the funds to pay for July rent.
"I don’t have any other plan. I’m really worried about being evicted. I just need to find a way out."
With the moratorium’s end fast approaching, Hemme is rushing to build a tiny home for their family of two on a friend’s property. Hemme, who's taught themself how to build the structure with the help of Rebuilding Center classes and donated tools from Cascadia Clusters, is collecting money to complete the project through an online fundraiser.
“It’s a lot of work, and taking longer than I thought it would,” said Hemme. “But I don’t have any other plan. I’m really worried about being evicted. I just need to find a way out.”
SB 278 remains in discussion in the House Rules Committee. Lawmakers have just under two weeks to advance and pass the bill before this year’s legislative session comes to a close. Both Portland City Council and the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners have expressed their support of SB 278, and county commissioners plan on discussing the legislation's impact during their Thursday morning briefing.
Whitney plans to continue to call and send messages to rent assistance providers, and is hoping to secure funds to either pay for July rent or relocate. Whitney moved to Portland from Las Vegas six years ago with her daughters, and doesn’t have any family nearby that could help with housing her in the interim. She’s afraid this will be the year where she has to leave behind the community she worked hard to build and call home in Oregon.
“If it comes to it, I’ll have to move back to Vegas,” said Whitney. “But that’s not my home anymore, I’ve made roots here…. I don’t want to lose that.”