Eugene City Councilor Ward 8

Register Guard: Living in limbo

29 October 2021

 Randy Groves

Comments from Councilor Groves: The crisis of eviction has been facing people struggling economically from the pandemic across our state. Both renters and landlords alike are facing financial challenges that are placing them in a precarious position. The renters facing the prospect of becoming unhoused. The landlords, many of them using their property to generate income or equity in preparation for retirement stand to lose big time by the set of circumstances thrust upon them by COVID-19. In the near term we need to find a path forward the keeps people in their homes while also protecting those who must pay mortgages on the properties they own. Looking forward, we must build a more robust safety net that will help us survive future events.During these difficult times as we confront the problem of being unhoused, we cannot be adding more people to the problem. From a humanitarian and economic standpoint it makes more sense to keep people in the housing they already have rather than having to find new housing once they are displaced. This debate also leads into the need in our community to increase our housing stock. The reality is that we need more housing at all levels with special emphasis on affordable housing.

Living in limbo

Time has run out to prevent evictions for thousands in Oregon

Bill Poehler and Adam Duvernay Salem Statesman Journal | USA TODAY NETWORK

Ronald York doesn’t know where he’s going to sleep. He can’t make rent. h York is being thrown out of his Bethel home for nonpayment of rent. His eviction is winding its way through court. Disabled, unemployed and waiting on help, he’s in residential limbo. h “I don’t know if there’s room to sleep on my son’s couch where he’s going,” York said. h Living on disability insurance after losing a part-time job around the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, York says state workers alternatively have told him to apply for both regular unemployment insurance and special pandemicunemployment assistance. h More than a year later, he’s never seen a check.

York’s landlord filed eviction paperwork for nonpayment of rent Oct. 11. York still can forestall eviction if he can prove he’s applied for help — but even then, time is limited.

“I’ve never been in this situation in my life. The uncertainty of it makes me sick to think about it. I’m scared to death I’m going to be one of those homeless guys,” York said.

The statewide eviction moratorium and many of the other protections for renters put in place during the pandemic have come to an end. Though aid is still available from a variety of sources, many have struggled to get that money into their landlords’ accounts.

In June, the state’s pandemic-induced ban on evictions expired. To buy renters more time to get assistance from the new program, lawmakers extended the ban on eviction for nonpayment of rent by 60 days.

But now the clock has run out for approximately 11,900 households, the number the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department estimates is at risk of eviction.

Families statewide face eviction after the COVID-related moratorium was recently lifted. GETTY IMAGES

Evictions - Still overwhelmed with applications

The state continues to be overwhelmed by the volume of applications and the Legislature has not extended the “safe harbor” to protect residents from getting evicted while they wait for the state to send out the assistance funds.

At an Oct. 4 hearing, OHCS officials said it could take 10 to 13 weeks for the state to catch up with the backlog of applications.

“While we have sufficient resources, there shouldn’t be anyone who is evicted for inability to pay,” Oregon Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, said.

Though lawmakers have expressed concern about the extent of the backlog, they have yet to take action like calling a special session to address it. Advocates and some lawmakers are calling for a special session, but it’s not clear when or if that will happen.

Typically, the governor calls the Legislature into special session. Lawmakers have met in special session four times since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

A spokesperson for Gov. Kate Brown said the governor is speaking with leaders from both parties and is willing to call a special session “when and if the votes are in place.”

“The governor continues to work with legislators to explore potential solutions that would extend additional tenant protections as we continue to deliver unprecedented levels of assistance,” spokesperson Liz Merah said in a statement. “At this time, any solutions to address issues surrounding evictions must be enacted in partnership with the Legislature as a part of the legislative process.”

In the meantime, landlords have begun reclaiming properties.

“We are seeing evictions happen all over the city,” said Ryan Moore, the Springfield-Eugene Tenant Association engagement and outreach director. “It’s not restricted to any single neighborhood or any city council ward, even. They are happening everywhere.”

Some tenants are self-evicting

The federal program was designed to give renters who earn 80% of the county’s median income up to 12 months of past-due rent and three months of future rent. Renters also were eligible for help paying for utilities.

In Lane County, for example, a family of four earning earning up to $41,940 would qualify for aid.

Oregon put the program under Housing and Community Services, a state agency that provides financial assistance and promotes affordable housing.

OHCS relied on community action agencies to find those who qualify and help them apply. Agencies, such as the ARCHES Project in Salem, were overwhelmed with the number of applications.

The state’s figure of 11,900 households who currently could be evicted is an estimate.

Tenant advocates say some people are self-evicting — leaving their residence as soon as a landlord tells them their time is up.

Under the state’s grace period, a tenant has to show their landlord the letter from the state proving they have applied for the rental assistance program. They then have 60 days before the landlord can file eviction papers for nonpayment of rent. Tenants in Multnomah County and in unincorporated areas of Washington County have 90 days of protection.

Estimates are that 14,000 people in the state have applied for the help but are past the 60-day protection. Of those, 3,700 have been waiting more than 120 days.

Some tenants are holding off until they receive a formal notice of eviction and then showing the letter, which buys them more time.

“It’s simply a matter of time before the checks reach the landlords,” said Sybil Hebb, legislative director for the Oregon Law Center, a nonprofit law firm.

But some landlords are done waiting.

‘Their patience has run out’

Since the state’s moratorium on evictions expired in late June, evictions for nonpayment of rent have skyrocketed, according to data compiled by the Oregon Law Center.

Between January and June, there was an average of 66 evictions for nonpayment per month. After the moratorium ended, that shot up to 361 evictions in July, 463 in August and 473 in September.

Moore, with the Springfield-EugeneTenant Association, said there were 41 nonpayment eviction cases set for a first appearance in court in October. Moore said another 53 eviction cases about other types of issues were set for a first appearance last month.

Of those 94 total cases, 49 were from Eugene and 21 were from Springfield, he said.

Between Sept. 14-30, there were 21 cases of eviction for non-payment of rent set for a first appearance in court. There were 50 first appearances for other types of evictions.

Of those 71 total cases, 35 were from Eugene and 13 were from Springfield, he said.

But Moore believes there are many, many more.

“We have a strong suspicion a vast majority of the evictions are invisible at this point because they’re not reaching the court level. The tenant is self evicting, they’re moving out before it gets to court and before it becomes visible to people like us,” Moore said.

At the court level, he said evictions are skyrocketing — and not just for nonpayment.

“We’re also seeing the landlords who were more hesitant or confused in moving forward with eviction seem a bit freer to do that now,” Moore said. “Types of evictions that were still legal during the moratorium, we’re seeing more of them now that the nonpayment moratorium has ended. Even though they’ve been legal, we’re seeing more of them.”

The Springfield-Eugene Tenant Association formed just before the pandemic began as a resource for navigating resources available to renters. Their main service is the Tenant Hotline, but about two months ago the nonprofit began taking their work to door to door.

“We’re canvassing everyone with a nonpayment eviction filed in court in Eugene and Springfield and connecting them with rent assistance dollars or other resources that might be appropriate when we can,” Moore said.

Statewide, nearly half of tenants who were evicted for not paying rent in September had applied for the rental assistance program, according to OHCS.

“Landlords have made it clear that their patience has run out,” OHCS Margaret Salazar said. “They have been patient. They have been receiving assistance on an ongoing basis, but we also know that landlords may begin evicting more people, even people who have applied for rental assistance.”

She said they are pleading with landlords to be patient a bit longer.

“We have asked them to do the right thing and we have reassured them that funds will continue to flow into their hands,” she said. “But it’s likely not enough to stave off evictions.”

The waiting is the hardest part

Nicole Taylor has never lived lavishly.

She rents a two-bedroom duplex in the North Tabor neighborhood of Portland with her mother and daughter.

Taylor worked at hospitals, for state agencies and schools through her adult life, but was unemployed at the start of the pandemic.

She received unemployment benefits and managed to pay rent and other bills with that money. But that ran out when the federal government’s pandemic benefits stopped.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Taylor started taking classes at Warner Pacific toward a degree in health care administration. She hopes to complete the degree in December.

She applied for emergency rental assistance when the state’s program opened May 19. And then she waited, and waited.

More than four months later, on Sept. 29, she received a payment for four months of back rent.

“At the end of the day, I just don’t understand, and it kind of makes me wonder how many people are in the same boat as me, who only asked for a few months of assistance and didn’t get it,” Taylor said.

After Taylor’s rent check finally arrived, she received notice from the state she may be able to apply for rental assistance in the future.

She was perturbed that she is being offered more help while thousands in her situation haven’t gotten any help and are being evicted.

“They’re losing their cars and they’re losing their homes or something because somebody in a position of power isn’t saying, ‘We need to stop this, or fix this immediately,’” Taylor said.

Back in Eugene, York is facing that risk.

York recently learned he has earlystage cancer. His only reliable housing fallback, his truck, is in the shop with a $6,000 bill. His disability insurance can’t cover his expenses.

He’s looking for new housing — but the rental market is tight and too expensive.

“I always pay my bills. If I’d gotten the money, it would have tided me over,” he said. “I’m not the only one. This happened to friends of mine. People are being wrongfully evicted.”

In June, Michael Bouchard applied for emergency rental assistance for his 24-foot trailer in north Salem and filled out all of the paperwork given.

And then he waited.

The former journeyman carpenter received unemployment payments for much of the pandemic and used that to pay his rent, but fell behind. He has worked when he could, and said he paid as much as he could.

Bouchard never received an official eviction summons, but said he received a number of verbal warnings from his landlord about the past-due rent.

For four months, Bouchard waited and contacted everyone he could think of – from trying to call Salazar to appearing on a Portland television station. He recently received a check for 15 months of back rent. He will use it to pay his landlord and get caught up.

But he said not everyone will be as lucky.

“I’m assertive,” Bouchard said. “Imagine those who aren’t.”

Will the state extend safe harbor?

When the “safe harbor” bill was signed into law in June, it assumed that the state would be able to work its way through the backlog of applications in a timely manner and deliver the payments before the tenants are evicted.

Nearly five months later, the state has barely made a dent in the backlog.

OHCS has provided different estimates of how long it will take to clear the backlog.

More than 50,000 households in Oregon have applied for assistance since May. About 12,300 have been paid.

In Lane County, there were about 3,500 applications. While 1,400 have been paid, more than 250 are past the 60-day time period.

Advocates are calling for lawmakers to either place another moratorium on evictions for people who haven’t paid rent or extend the grace period. They said that would let the state work through the backlog and get the money to people who need it while also keeping people who haven’t gotten help yet in their homes.

“Mechanically, how do we get there?” Hebb said. “I don’t know the answers to all of those questions, but I’m sure our state leadership is up to the challenge of how to figure out how to come together … to take extraordinary measure and ensure that people don’t fall off the cliff in this incredible pandemic.”

Contact reporter Adam Duvernay at aduvernay@registerguard.com. Follow on Twitter@DuvernayOR.Contact Statesman Journal reporter Bill Poehler at bpoehler@statesmanjournal.com or Twitter.com/bpoehler.

Michael Bouchard of Salem on Oct. 12 shows where pins were inserted to help stabilize his wrist after one of his many work-related injuries. He has been waiting nearly five months for the state to pay him emergency rental assistance. CONNOR RADNOVICH/STATESMAN JOURNAL

Copyright © 2021 The Register-Guard 10/28/2021

Randy Groves