Sandra Brown is late for eviction court. It’s 9:15 am on Friday, July 13, and after missing two buses, Brown says she lost her balance and hit her knee—hard—on the bus ride downtown. The driver offered to call an ambulance for Brown, who looks to be in her early 60s. She refused.
“I didn’t want to get evicted,” says Brown with a laugh. “I’ll go to the hospital later.”
Dressed in a flowery jumpsuit and clutching a manila folder, she hurriedly limps down the halls of the Multnomah County Courthouse and slips into Room 120, joining the usual congregation of bored-looking landlord lawyers and anxious tenants sitting before Judge Benjamin Johnston.
Like the majority of Portland renters who end up in eviction court, Brown is here because her landlord claims she didn’t pay her rent. The organization serving as Brown’s landlord—Multnomah County’s public housing authority, Home Forward—says she skipped a September 2017 rent payment for her North Portland apartment. Brown refutes the claim. According to her, Home Forward has since refused to accept her last two rent checks. Now Home Forward is asking her to cover the September rent, the past two months’ rent, and a number of late fees, for a bill totaling $475. If she pays, Brown won’t be forced to immediately vacate her studio apartment, which she’s called home for four years. She’ll also avoid getting stuck with an eviction on her rental history record—a damning mark that would likely hurt her chances of renting a home in the future.
But Brown doesn’t have the funds. Usually, this would mean an eviction is certain. Today, however, is an exception to that rule.
“We can help. We have the money,” says Margot Black, the founder of Portland Tenants United*. Black regularly volunteers her time to help tenants navigate the city’s labyrinthine eviction court process. Today she’s helping Legal Aid Services of Oregon (LASO) attorneys connect with tenants who could benefit from their free services.
“It’s a vicious cycle. The system is set up to fail.”
—Margot Black, founder of Portland Tenants United
Black crouches next to Brown, who has left the courtroom to negotiate with Aaron Matusick, a lawyer representing Home Forward. The nondescript hallway outside Room 120 is where the majority of eviction cases are actually settled, in agreements between a tenant and a landlord’s lawyer before they ever go to court. Black waves over a lawyer who’s with LASO.
“Oh yeah, get them to help you,” says Matusick, with a sardonic smile. “The taxpayers are paying for it anyway.”
LASO attorneys are part of a new team of tenant advisors who, over the past two budget cycles, have been granted a total of $205,000 in city funds to help Portlanders avoid eviction and homelessness by simply paying their overdue rents and late fees. Ideally, the program’s financial aid acts as a temporary cushion, giving tenants enough time to restructure their finances and get back to regularly paying rent.
The program acts as a short-term financial solution to a chronic problem—tenants’ inability to pay rent in a city with a deficit of affordable housing—and advocates say it’s helping tenants. And in a court system that can seem systemically built to work against tenants, it’s a small victory.
The “Eviction Prevention Pilot Program” kicked off last month and is made up of LASO lawyers and staff with the Community Alliance of Tenants (CAT) and JOIN, a homeless outreach nonprofit. July 13 was the fourth day that group members met outside of Room 120, intercepting tenants who couldn’t pay their way out of an eviction. The group also tries to visit and send postcards to every person on the court’s eviction docket, in an effort to educate tenants about the program’s purpose and benefits before they enter the courthouse.
To qualify for aid, a tenant simply needs to meet low-income criteria and show up to court. “It’s pretty simple,” says Dung Ho, CAT’s tenant education director. “And there clearly is a demonstrated need. We’ve already helped a lot of people.” She doesn’t have hard numbers to back this claim but says she’s confident the group’s eventual presentation before city council to request that the pilot project becomes permanent—scheduled for no earlier than next year—will be persuasive.
In this case, the pilot program is able to fully cover Brown’s mounting bill and keep her from going to trial, where she would have most likely lost. LASO lawyers also help explain the importance of continuing to pay rent on time.
“I understand,” Brown says. “I am so lucky that I found you.”
If Brown slips up a second time, the pilot program’s funds will no longer be able to keep Home Forward from evicting her.
Patterns like Brown’s are familiar to those who know the eviction court system.
“By the time people get to this point, they’re already late on rent for this month and probably can’t afford the next,” says Black. But even as she supports the program, Black fears the process may only postpone the inevitable.
“Sure, we can cover one month, or two... but what about the next?” says Black. “It’s a vicious cycle. The system is set up to fail.”
The ideal fix, Black says, would be a more comprehensive, long-term solution, like a program that offers low-income tenants financial guidance and assistance before their overdue bills start piling up. But in Portland, where the lack of affordable housing has been deemed an “emergency,” short-term solutions have become the priority.
Back inside Room 120, Judge Johnston is hearing the pleas of a woman who has returned to the court after allegedly failing to uphold her landlord’s settlement agreement. She says she never received a notice in the mail and that there must have been a clerical error. Her voice wavers as she asks for an extension.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Johnston says, “but this is the agreement you made.”
“She’s probably going to be homeless,” Black says. “If only we caught her last week, we could have helped her.”*Clarification: Portland Tenants United is not affiliated with the city-funded pilot program.