The societal response to COVID-19 has forced thousands of Oregonians to apply for unemployment, close their business, or take unpaid time off work to watch kids out of school or care for vulnerable family members. For Portland renters already living paycheck to paycheck, the unexpected loss of income has impacted their ability to cover rent for the foreseeable future.
To safeguard those tenants, the city, county and state have unveiled temporary programs prohibiting evictions. There's been confusion, however, around what exactly those protections include—and how a renter can benefit from them. As we approach the first of the month, let's review how these local and state-level supports work. We'll also get you up to speed on the work activists are doing to push lawmakers to go further to protect tenants.
Local eviction moratorium:
In Multnomah County, landlords are prohibited from evicting tenants for non-payment of rent due to coronavirus-related financial impacts. The moratorium, signed on March 18, lasts until the end of the county's emergency declaration, which, for now, has no official termination date.
For a tenant to successfully use this resource, however, they must notify their landlord in writing—over email or in a letter—before the first of the month and provide documented evidence showing how they've been economically impacted by the virus. According to the Portland Housing Bureau (PHB), that documentation can be:
● A letter from a tenant's employer citing COVID-19 as a reason for reduced work hours or a layoff.
● Letters from clients citing COVID-19 as a reason for reducing or cancelling purchase orders or requests for services.
● Documentation from a school or local government declaring a school closure related to COVID-19.
● Letter from a doctor recommending "rest at home, self-quarantine, hospitalization, or similar measures" for a tenant or their family member.
Legal Aid Service of Oregon created a handy letter template tenants can use to notify their landlord.
Non-payment of utilities—if utilities are paid through a landlord, not directly to a utility company—is also included in this moratorium. Once the crisis declaration is lifted, tenants will have up to six months to pay back their unpaid rent. Landlords are prohibited from adding late fees to the deferred rent payments.
If a landlord rejects a tenant's legitimate request to delay rent payments, a tenant can sue for damages. According to the city, landlords could also be "liable to the tenant for an amount up to 3 times the monthly rent as well as actual damages, reasonable attorney fees, and costs."
Statewide eviction moratorium:
Oregon's moratorium is slightly more unruly than the local version. Gov. Kate Brown's March 22 executive order prohibits law enforcement from evicting tenants for non-payment of rent, but does not restrict landlords from filing to evict a tenant during the COVID-19 crisis. The moratorium lasts 90 days, until June 20, 2020.
This means that renters living outside of Multnomah County can withhold rent—and they won't be physically removed from their homes by law enforcement—but they can still face eviction and civil penalties the day that moratorium ends. Unlike the county's policy, here is no grace period for paying back delayed rent, and there are no penalties for landlords who evict people who have solid proof that they cannot pay rent due to the COVID-19's economic fallout.
UPDATE: Brown strengthened this moratorium in an April 1 executive order, which prohibits residential landlords from initiating the eviction process or charging late fees if a tenant is unable to pay rent because of COVID-19.
Rent strike? Rent amnesty?
You may have noticed stickers and flyers around your neighborhood calling for a "rent strike." That's a campaign organized by local activists calling on a large number of people to refuse to pay rent in April—even if they can afford it—as a way to protest the government's decision to delay rent payments instead of erasing them entirely. While a mass rent strike would make a serious statement, refusing to pay rent (without sending documentation required under the county's eviction moratorium rules) could result in massive fines, an eviction, and no legal recourse—even before the COVID-19 crisis ends.
A separate campaign by Portland Tenants United (PTU) is calling for "April amnesty" for tenants who have given adequate documentation to their landlord before not paying rent April.
"A moratorium is a good start," said PTU spokesperson Allie Sayre. "But a six-month payment plan is not realistic for tenants."
Sayer said that expecting low-income renters to be able to repay rent in the future—on top of their regular rent payments—is just delaying a financial crisis. PTU is urging state lawmakers to introduce legislation in the upcoming special session that will waive residential rent, mortgage, and utility payments for all eligible tenants until the COVID-19 crisis' economic toll has lessened. The proposed bill would look similar to one that's been introduced in the New York Senate, which would suspend rent payments across the state for 90 days.
Two days before rent is due for most tenants, it's still unclear when Brown will schedule the special legislative session meant to address COVID-19. As of today, no lawmakers have proposed legislation that would grant complete rent amnesty—only bills to strengthen Brown's statewide moratorium.