The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted Thursday to give renters 90 days of protection from eviction for non-payment of rent, now that the statewide eviction moratorium has come to an end.
In a morning board meeting, County Chair Deborah Kafoury noted that Oregon's eviction moratorium expired at the end of June, around the same time that Gov. Kate Brown lifted most statewide COVID-19 restrictions.
"While these changes may make the end of the pandemic feel closer for many people," Kafoury said, "for thousands more, those who are waiting for their jobs to return or those who remain unvaccinated, the crisis continues. ...Our highest priority now is to insure that low-income households can access the rental assistance to stay housed and stay safe."
The decision extends a policy made by state lawmakers last month in Senate Bill 278. The legislation, signed by Gov. Kate Brown on June 25, protects tenants from eviction for up to 60 days, provided they give their landlords proof that they’ve applied for rental assistance through local or state programs. Multnomah County's provision stretches that grace period to 90 days. Like the state bill, this grace period can be used only once per eviction cycle, and expires in March 2022.
The extension is specifically meant to give the county and state more time to disperse rental assistance dollars among households who can't pay rent after the moratorium.
While Multnomah County has nearly $100 million in various federal rental assistance funds available to distribute to tenants who are unable to pay rent, it has struggled to efficiently disperse the funds due to overwhelming need. According to the state's database, nearly 10,500 renters in Multnomah County have applied for rental assistance through the state's program since May 19. Multnomah County residents make up 60 percent of all Oregon tenants who've applied for rent assistance through the state.
Local nonprofits that have been tasked with processing rental assistance applications have raised concerns about being able to go through the vast number of applications within the state's 60-day window—let alone send rental funds to tenants within that time frame.
“We have case workers working double time to get these applications processed," said Karina Holland, director of the housing nonprofit JOIN, which processes a portion of rent assistance requests that come through the county, in a June interview with the Mercury. "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.”
County commissioners believe that adding 30 more days of protection will give those organizations more time to get the money out the door.
"I don't want to lose sight of why we're considering this extension: It's because we want to get that money to renters and to landlords," said County Commissioner Lori Stegmann Thursday.
Property owners aren't thrilled by this extension. Jessica Greenlee, a developer with Portland's Affinity Property Management, told commissioners Thursday that the extension might worsen landlord's financial problems in cases where a tenant doesn't qualify for rental assistance.
While the proposal protects tenants from eviction who apply for rent assistance—regardless of whether or not they actually qualify for the funds—county staff explained that the "vast majority" of rent assistance requests are accepted.
Liam Frost, a policy director in Kafoury's office, acknowledged that there's "been a tremendous burden on landlords" during the COVID pandemic.
"Unfortunately, there is a tradeoff when we're trying to protect the most vulnerable members of our community," Frost said.
Frost added that the leadership of landlord association Multifamily Northwest has expressed their direct opposition to the extension. Multifamily Northwest has sued the City of Portland in the past over tenant protection policies, and has expressed its support of a December 2020 lawsuit filed by landlords against the state's eviction moratorium.
Deborah Imse, director of Multifamily Northwest, told the Mercury that the county's extension will likely cause "major confusion amongst renters and housing providers... causing further anxiety for everyone struggling to recover from pandemic hardships." Imse lamented that the proposal did not address the problems causing the backlog of rental assistance applications, instead just extending the timeframe to catch up with the need.
The county's 30-day extension has the support of the entire Portland City Council.
"This targeted, short-term extension will give service providers time to process rental assistance dollars and provide Portlanders at risk of eviction the funding they need to stay housed," reads a letter sent to the county, signed by all five city commissioners. "We are living through an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, and we need to take unprecedented action."
The policy does not change the state's policy requiring tenants to pay their landlords for rent payments missed during the eviction moratorium by February 2022.
It's also clear that the federal extension of the eviction moratorium to July 31, 2021 does not impact the local or state rent support program. During a Wednesday meeting of A Home For Everyone's coordinating board, a regional governing board focused on addressing homelessness, attorney Becky Strauss with the Oregon Law Center said that the state bill—and the pending county extension of its provisions—offers much stronger protections to renters than the federal moratorium's extension.
"The main message," said Strauss, "is that tenants who cannot pay rent in July or ongoing should immediately apply for rent assistance."