Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury speaking at a March 12 press conference.
Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury speaking at a March 12 press conference. Motoya Nakamura

Renters whose finances have been depleted from the economic impacts of COVID-19 will not be evicted for skipping rent during Multnomah County's declared state of emergency over the coronavirus' spread.

"Many of us are able to self-quarantine... and we can access the hygiene products we can to stay healthy," said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury at a morning press conference. "But when someone loses their home, those things come close to impossible."

The eviction moratorium will last until the end of Multnomah County's current state of emergency, which is currently in place until April 10. After the emergency declaration ends, renters will have six months to repay all unpaid rent.

"Under this moratorium... no one can be evicted for failure to pay rent," said Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler at the press conference.

Wheeler said the decision applies to people who've lost substantial income due to COVID-19, "by way of job loss, job closure, reduction in work hours, missing work due to a child's school closure, [or] missing work due to illness of yourself or of a family member."

Landlords who don't comply with the new rules can be sued for noncompliance. It is unclear how the ruling impacts eviction cases that have already been opened.

The moratorium only applies to residential rentals, not businesses leasing commercial space.

All commercial properties owned by the City of Portland however, will be granted a three month deferral of rent and loan payments. Wheeler said the city's currently gathering input from commercial property management companies to develop a "commercial eviction prevention strategy."

Wheeler has also created an emergency task force to help small and large businesses impacted by the sweeping social distancing limitations imposed by government agencies to resist the spread of COVID-19.

"Every option will be on the table to support the resilience and the recovery of our local economy," said Wheeler.

For now, that includes $150,000 in grants for businesses in the Jade District, the east Portland neighborhood with a large congregation of Asian-owned businesses—many of which were the first to see profits drop when COVID-19 begun its spread across China.

"We're starting in the Jade District, because that is are area that has been among the hardest impacted by the economic downturn related to COVID-19," said Wheeler. "With time, we expect to be able to expand these resources to other areas of the community."

He instructed Jade District business owners to call 311 for more information.

The county is also expanding temporary housing for the region's houseless population during the coronavirus pandemic. Over the past two weeks, shelter providers had begun to turn homeless patrons away to maintain a healthy amount of distance between people who were showing symptoms of COVID-19.

"In this coming week... we will begin opening hundreds of new beds of shelter," said Kafoury. "Beds that will allow us to follow the current social distancing guidelines for shelters without cutting capacity and having to turn people away. We will use public buildings and other spaces made available because of the emergency at hand."

It's not yet clear which buildings will be used for these new, temporary shelters. Kafoury also said the county's expanding the number of hotel vouchers for houseless people who are at the highest risk of contracting COVID-19.

"To make sure that nobody is turned away, I am taking action to ensure that motels and hotels are prohibited from refusing occupancy to anyone at our shelters whose stay we will pay for," said Kafoury.

The regional eviction freeze comes hours after Home Forward, Multnomah County's public housing authority, announced an eviction moratorium on all public housing units, lasting until May 31. It also follows a Monday announcement made by Multnomah County Circuit Court that all eviction hearings would be delayed until March 30, at the earliest.

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The press conference was interrupted by demands from public attendees calling for a rent freeze across the county. Officials ended the conference early after reporters' questions were drowned out by shouts from members of the public.

Dr. Jennifer Vines, the tri-county health officer for the Portland metro region, said she empathized with the community's concerns, but knows local officials and public health workers are doing all they can to ease these growing financial burdens.

"A communicable disease shines a spotlight on the fact that people are struggling with rent, the fact that we have people living in shelters, the fact that so many of our kids rely on schools to get their food," said Vines. "We have multiple crises within crises and I certainly understand that. I am confident that we are doing what we can to mitigate these multiple intersecting crises."