Recent days have seen several measures move forward at the federal, state and local levels to address the looming housing crisis related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
This time last week, Portland renters were looking at a moratorium that ended on January 8, 2021. Even then, those renters would have been on the hook for all of their unpaid rent by the end of March. While some funding was made available through the federal CARES Act to cover current and back rent for struggling tenants, most of these funds weren’t available for Portland residents until October and cannot be spent past December thirtieth. According to the local information and services hotline 211, as of December 22 this funding is no longer being provided by any local agencies, and the county’s rent assistance wait list is closed.
Last Thursday, December 17, Multnomah County extended its own eviction moratorium. The county moratorium is still the most generous policy covering Portlanders—it was extended until July 2, 2021, and retains the six month grace period for renters to pay back their accumulated rent debt, which now begins on July 2. I will spare you the math—that gives Multnomah County residents until January 2, 2022, to repay their back rent.
Now if you are asking yourself, hey, I live in one of the tiny slivers of Portland that is not actually located within Multnomah County—what about me? Well, you’re in luck, because the city passed an ordinance months ago that pretty much piggy backs on whatever Multnomah County is doing, so that means that all Portlanders are covered by the county’s policy.
The extension of Multnomah County’s moratorium happened the day before the state legislature began meeting for its third emergency session of the year. On Monday evening, the state House voted to approve an extension of the statewide eviction moratorium until July 1, 2021, but the policy itself has changed significantly, and these changes still affect Multnomah County residents indirectly. That’s because the new state policy ropes in landlords, who can now apply for funding to cover unpaid rent...if their tenants sign a legal form declaring that they have been unable to pay rent at any point after March 16, 2020, due to COVID-related reasons.
This is complicated, mostly due to the different emergency measures put in place at different times as the pandemic has continued to disrupt the economy. For unpaid rent during the time period of April to September 2020, renters have a six month grace period to repay which ends on March 31, 2021. However, unpaid rent accrued during the time period of October through December 2020 has no grace period, and must be repaid on January 1, 2021. For example, if a tenant was unable to pay rent in September and October of 2020 but scraped together enough to cover the other months of the year, on January 1 they would be on the hook for October and January’s rent, including being subject to eviction for nonpayment, while still having until June 30 to pay off September’s rent.
With the new state rules, however, tenants must sign and give their landlord a legal document (accessible here at the Oregon Rental Housing Association website) declaring that they have been unable to pay some or all rent after March 16, 2020, due to COVID-related reasons. If they give their landlord this document, they will have until July 1 to pay back October through December rent. If they do not provide the document, they will still need to pay that rent by January 1 or face eviction. Landlords with tenants who provide this document can now also apply to the Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS) department to have 80%t of back rent covered by the state. Landlords who access this program will be required to forgive the remaining 20% of back rent. The state allocated $150 million for this program, and landlords who qualify will be prioritized based on the number of tenants they have and how much back rent they are owed.
So, to circle back to Multnomah County and Portland residents—while the local eviction moratorium is stronger than that offered by the state, the landlord compensation fund still applies to local landlords. That means that local renters may still want to provide their landlords with the declaration of inability to pay rent due to COVID, since they could potentially have their back rent paid for and forgiven through the state program. It probably goes without saying that local landlords might also put the pressure on tenants to provide that documentation so that they can access the state fund.
The new state policy also extends the typical 72-hour eviction notice requirement to ten days, and requires landlords to provide a copy of the inability-to-pay form along with any eviction notice. If the tenant facing eviction did indeed have a COVID-related reason for not paying rent and can return the form to their landlord in a timely manner, the landlord cannot proceed with the eviction filing.
This is all very complicated, and leaves lots of room for misinterpretation. Tenants who are unsure of their rights or who feel that they are being pressures or treated unfairly by their landlords can reach out for guidance to the Community Alliance of Tenants, Legal Aid Services of Oregon, and the Fair Housing Council of Oregon, as well as local activist groups like Portland Tenants United.
Now, as of Monday, there is also an extended federal eviction moratorium through the CDC, but it requires that tenants meet five criteria and sign a declaration form. Those criteria are that the tenant has tried to obtain rental assistance; makes less that ninety-nine-thousand-dollars a year; has had trouble making rent payments due to loss of income or medical costs; has tried to at least make partial payments; and is in danger of falling into homelessness. The CDC moratorium has only been extended until January 31, 2020, on the assumption that president-elect Joe Biden will extend it further when he takes office. The moratorium is part of a larger stimulus bill responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, which President Trump has yet to sign into law.
Lastly, it still remains to be seen if Washington governor Jay Inslee will extend that state’s moratorium past the end of the year. He has indicated that his office is working on a plan, but has yet to make a final announcement. Currently, six Washington Counties covering the Seattle-Tacoma metro area, Spokane and Vancouver have an Eviction Resolution Program in place, which is essentially mediation that landlords must offer to their tenants when they proceed with eviction filings.