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As the COVID-19 pandemic heads into its second full month, Multnomah County tenants are again facing an uncomfortable question: Can I afford to pay rent?

With historically high unemployment rates—many of them in low-paying jobs traditionally held by renters— local and state governments have continued to expand their protections for tenants.

Let's get you up to speed on what's changed, what hasn't, and what Multnomah County tenants need to do to legally withhold rent this coming month.

On April 16, Multnomah County scrapped its original eviction moratorium and began following Gov. Kate Brown's residential eviction moratorium (which was expanded on April 1). Brown's order prohibits landlords from evicting tenants due to non-payment of rent or utilities—regardless of the reason—during the COVID-19 crisis. That means financially-burdened tenants can hold off on paying rent until the moratorium is over. As of now, that moratorium is in effect until June 30, but Brown has the authority to extend that end date at any time.

Multnomah County did introduce one extra protection for renters living within its boundaries. Multnomah County renters who choose to withhold rent during the moratorium will have up to six months to pay back the deferred rent to their landlords. (Under the state's order, that rent is presumably due as soon as the moratorium is lifted.)

The combined rules are far more lenient on tenants than earlier iterations meant to protect tenants during COVID-19, yet neither absolve tenants of repaying their deferred rent in full. Local officials are waiting on state and federal lawmakers to make that decision.

Earlier this month, Portland City Council sent a letter to Brown requesting the state forgive both residential and commercial rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. It has not received a response.

Last week, the Oregon Legislature approved $8.5 million for Oregon landlords on behalf of renters making less than 50 percent of area median income, but the funds aren't meant to permanently replace lost rent payments. Congress, meanwhile, has yet to see Republican support for a bill that would cancel rents and home mortgage payments through the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For now, renters are strictly guaranteed deferred rent during this crisis. To help tenants navigate the new policies, we've broken it down to the essentials.


What you need to do:


Inform your landlord.

The moratorium simply requires tenants who are unable to pay their full rent to notify their landlord "as soon as reasonably possible." There is no legal definition to what a "reasonably possible" timeframe looks like, which works in tenants' favor. Essentially, if a landlord were to challenge a renter in court for not notifying them by a certain point in time, the renter has broad leeway to define what "reasonably possible" means to them.

Additionally, tenants are not required to notify their landlords about not paying full rent by the first of the month.

Pay what you can, if you can.

If you can afford to cover your rent, or pay for a portion of your rent, you should. The state's moratorium states that tenants "shall make partial rent payments to the extent the tenant is financially able to do so." Again, there is no legal precedent for defining what an individual tenant can financially afford. If it's financially impossible to cover any of your rent payment, you aren't obligated to do so.


What you don't need to do:


Provide documentation to your landlord of lost income due to COVID-19.

This rule was part of the city and county's original eviction moratorium, but it's no longer a requirement. If your landlord asks for proof, direct them to Gov. Brown's executive order.

Agree to a repayment plan with your landlord.

Multnomah County's policy regarding rent repayment explicitly states that, "Nothing in this ordinance prohibits or requires a payment plan between a residential tenant and landlord." If you feel comfortable signing an agreement with your landlord agreeing to repay deferred rent, go right ahead. But be assured that your landlord cannot require you to sign any paperwork—including a repayment plan—in order to legally withhold rent.

Pay late fees.

Landlords are prohibited from charging tenants late fees for unpaid rent during this moratorium. If your landlord sticks you with a late fee, direct them to Gov. Brown's executive order.

Repay any of your deferred rent payments until six months after the moratorium ends.

Per the county's repayment policy, tenants have six months to pay all rent and utility charges owed to a landlord that went unpaid during the eviction moratorium. During that six-month grace period, landlords are prohibited from evicting a tenant for not repaying the deferred rent. It's up to tenants if they want to spread out their rent repayments over the six-month timeframe or deliver it all in a single payment on the very last day of the grace period.

Tenants are, however, obligated to pay their standard monthly rents as soon as the moratorium is lifted. For example, if the moratorium ends on June 30, tenants are required to pay July rent in full.


What you should consider doing:


Save money to cover at least one month's full rent.

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As mentioned above, tenants will be required to pay monthly rents in full as soon as the eviction moratorium is lifted. That payment cannot be delayed. If you're planning on deferring rent payments throughout the moratorium, it's a good idea to have at least one month's rent saved to cover that first post-moratorium bill.

Save any paperwork documenting lost income due to COVID-19.

While there is no requirement to provide proof that you've been financially burdened by COVID-19 to delay rent payments, these documents may come in handy if the state or federal government decide to offer rent assistance or forgiveness in the future. These documents include emails from employers, work schedules that show lost hours, or any other documents that can illustrate your economic loss.

Ask for help.

Is your landlord allowed to ask you that? Are you supposed to sign that form? If you have any questions about what's legal—and what's not—under these new rules, seek free guidance through Community Alliance of Tenants' hotline or low-cost (or free!) legal advice from Legal Aid Services of Oregon.