As housing relief dries up, crisis moves to a new stage
Becky Straus of the Eviction Defense Project (left) and Cyd Maurer, an eviction defense attorney, represent the Oregon Law Center where free legal help is offered to low income Oregonians facing the loss of housing from eviction.
There are still some options to help renters trying to avoid eviction during the current housing crisis even though the state agency managing an emergency rental assistance fund shut down all applications on Monday.
The Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program (OERAP) was set to close even earlier, but got a one week extension to March 21 thanks to an additional $16 million in federal funds. The monies allowed an additional 2,200 Oregonians to stay in their homes for now. While more funds are sought, getting additional resources remains doubtful.
Jill Smith, interim director of the housing stabilization for Oregon Housing and Community services, was grateful for the extension, but said more funds are still needed.
“Our message to the U.S. Treasury remains loud and clear,” she said. “If other states have money they can’t use — send those dollars to Oregon.”
The Oregon Law Center is partnering with the city to provide free legal help to those facing eviction, according to Becky Straus, the managing attorney for the center’s Eviction Defense Project.
“We have contracted with the city to help them implement their eviction defense program,” Straus said. “What’s new is that since early 2021 we have been taking more eviction cases in a dedicated special project to be able to more meet the needs of low income tenants facing eviction.”
Portland City Council in August authorized the Portland Housing Bureau to contract with the Oregon Law Center, and the push began in July when more staff was hired, Straus said.
Any low-income renters who have received a termination notice, a proposed termination of their housing subsidy or eviction court papers will be able to reach a lawyer by calling 888-585-9638 or sending an email to email@example.com. They should include their name, date of birth and eviction case number on the intake line or email.
In addition, renters in Multnomah County can avoid eviction for non-payment of rent if they have applied for rental assistance, which will protect them for 90 days.
Many organizations have “ramped up capacity” during the pandemic, Straus said, but many people aren’t aware of their rights in eviction cases.
“We are working with the city to be able to increase the amount of households and also to help people upstream with eviction court,” she said. Before landlords can take a tenant to eviction court, they must give notice with a valid reason, but some tenants don’t know that, she added.
“Sometimes they just move even though they don’t have to, and if a tenant reaches us at that stage they get advice in the moment so, hopefully, they can maintain housing,” she said. “Without that resource the landlord goes ahead and files in eviction court and the stakes are higher.”
There are also special protections that apply for nonpayment of rent, in that tenants can’t be evicted while their rent assistance application is pending. According to the Eviction Defense Project, there are hundreds of millions of new federal rent assistance dollars available to Oregonians, and applications can be filed at oregonrentalassistance.org or 211.org.
A free mediation for tenant-landlord disputes is also available from Resolutions Northwest, a nonprofit “focused on strengthening community and advancing racial and social justice,” according to a press release from program director Erion Moore.
“No matter what the conflict is about, whether it’s noise, guests, parking, back rent, moving or moving costs, property damages and so forth, our aim is to resolve all issues through conversation,” Moore stated, even if a court date has been set.
“There are a lot of low-income, disabled, people of color and other underrepresented groups that have not heard about our program, as well as others who could use help talking to their tenants and/or landlords,” Moore said. To learn more, go to resolutionsnorthwest.com/services, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 971-389-7138.
The Community Alliance of Tenants, at oregoncat.org, also provides information on renters’ rights, tenant education, tenant advocacy and tenant organization. The Know Your Rights link, heron-dory-m496.squarespace.com/know-your-rights, gives information in a wide variety of topics in several languages.
Kim McCarty, director of the Alliance, has spoken about the need for more help for renters.
“The end of OERAP is a blow to tenants statewide,” she said in an interview with the Portland Mercury. “We’re still in a renters’ state of emergency and lasting changes are needed.”
More long-term help for renters could be on the ballot in November if the group Tenants Organizing Against Displacement is able to get a measure on the ballot to pay for attorneys for renters facing eviction.
The petition effort, funded by the Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, would follow similar practices in New York, California and Washington. It would impose a $0.75 capital gains tax to raise an estimate $12 million to $15 million per year.
Colleen Carroll, campaign organizer for the effort, said the number of evictions filed in other areas have dropped when tenants have access to lawyer.
“We are looking at a salaried group of lawyers with a reasonable case load,” Carroll stated.
“We want the funding to be sustainable and not easily cut.”