GettyImages-1227861728.jpg
Getty Images / Scott Heins

As the COVID-19 pandemic nears its one-year mark in the United States, millions of people are still unable to make their monthly rent payments. In Oregon, an estimated 11.7 percent of the leased households did not pay rent in January, and recent US Census data find that an estimated 89,000 Oregonians currently owe some amount of unpaid rent from the past year.

Oregon's statewide eviction moratorium currently allows tenants whose income has been financially pummeled by COVID-19 to delay missed rent payments until the end of June, which has kept many would-be evicted tenants in their homes during the pandemic. Yet the state has done little to chip away at the growing sum of past-due rent these tenants will owe come July 1. According to a study commissioned by the National Council of State Housing Finance Agencies, Oregonian tenants collectively owed between $249 million and $378 million in unpaid rent as of January 2021.

Since the pandemic began, Oregon renter advocacy groups have called on the state and federal government to "cancel rent," or erase the debt tenants will need to repay once eviction moratoriums are lifted. Their argument: If a tenant is currently unable to pay rent, it's unlikely they're able to save any money to also cover past months' missed rent. While economists have been able to quantify the accruing debt, there's been little analysis of the financial toll that comes with not cancelling—or at least curtailing—Oregon's rent payments. At least, until now.

On Tuesday, Portland State University's (PSU) Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative released a study that calculates the amount of public funding needed to respond to the expected surge in evictions that will come once the state's moratorium lifts—and tenants are still unable to repay missed rent bills.

The tab comes in at $3.3 billion.

PSU researchers looked at a variety of different factors to arrive at this number, including the nightly cost of a bed in a homeless shelter, the cost of putting a homeless child into a foster care program, the cost of increased hospital visits (since houseless people visit the hospital more often than people in housing), the cost of housing more minors in juvenile detention centers (since children are more likely to be arrested after becoming homeless), and the cost of other social services required to meet an increased need.

Marisa Zapata, a PSU urban planning professor and director of the Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative, said this number is likely an underestimate.

"I look at this as the floor, not the ceiling," said Zapata. "There's a lot of data that just isn't historically collected to measure homelessness."

For instance, the study does not reflect the number of people who "double up"—or move into a friend or family member's house—when they're unable to make rent payments, a population increase that could also drive up social service costs. It also doesn't show the impact an eviction could have on a child's education, potentially increasing the cost to keep them caught up in school. And there's no way to calculate the costs of tenants who feel forced to move out of town or out of state to find more affordable housing. Zapata noted that many of these missed data points represent renters of color.

Despite these unaccounted dollars, the study still finds that evicting thousands of Oregonians who can't scrape together missed rent will cost the state eight times more than covering tenants' missed rent payments.

Dr. Lisa Bates, a PSU urban studies professor who contributed research to this study, wants this number to be central in policy conversations about the state's rental protections.

"Right now, you see numbers like $375 million [looking at the cost of accrued unpaid rent], and say, 'Wow, can we afford that?'" Bates said. "But when it's compared to the cost of doing nothing, maybe that changes to, 'We can do this and there is an imperative to do this.'"

The Oregon Legislature has approved some funding to keep renters afloat. In December, legislators approved a $150 million fund to repay landlords for back rent on behalf of tenants who have skipped payments. The fund allows landlords to apply to regain up to $50 million in relief funds, but requires they forgo 20 percent of the total past-due rent in the process. According to the Oregonian's reporting, the money may not be available to landlords until March.

Support The Portland Mercury

And while lawmakers have suggested expanding this fund during the current legislative session, there's yet to be legislation introduced on the issue. Nor is there legislation centered on creating a grace period that allows renters to repay their missed bills over a series of months. Multnomah County's eviction moratorium previously included a six-month repayment grace period, but the regional policy was formally replaced by the state's eviction moratorium on February 1. The state's moratorium, however, does go beyond the federal eviction moratorium, which is currently set to expire at the end of March.

Zapata hopes the study shows lawmakers—and the public—that this isn't an issue that can continually be kicked down the road. Without some kind of intervention, Zapata said that all of the recent state and local efforts to keep people in housing, whether through new taxes or expanded city programs, will be undone.

"I can't imagine anything more disastrous than to suddenly add this many people into the homeless system," she said. "It's a humanitarian issue. How can we look people in the eyes, who are currently in housing, and allow them to become homeless?"