Portland renters currently have several moratoriums protecting them from eviction. There are the local and state eviction moratoriums, both set to expire at the end of September. And, last week, the Centers for Disease Control issued its own eviction moratorium for renters set to last through the end of the year.
But eventually, the protections granted by these three moratoriums will expire. And Portland’s renters will be left on the hook for a huge sum in backlogged rent. Between May and September, Portlanders are collectively expected to have fallen behind on rent by $120 to $125 million, according to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.
“The bill that our community will collectively have to pay when these moratoriums expire looms large in my mind,” Wheeler said in a press conference Tuesday held to preview steps the city was taking to stabilize households.
During the conference, Wheeler proposed two new measures to protect vulnerable households in Portland, which he predicts will eventually see a flood of evictions when these protections sunset.
The first step would be a temporary change to the city’s mandatory renter relocation assistance program.
Currently, landlords in Portland have to pay their tenant money if they increase their rent by 10% or more over a 12 month period, prompting them to leave their home. That money, which can range from $2,900 and $4,500, is meant to go toward moving expenses.
Wheeler said he believes that any rent increase during the pandemic would likely force renters to leave their homes. To make this transition easier, the mayor said he would be pushing for an emergency council action that would make it so any increase in rent would trigger these payments through the end of 2020.
“While we’re in the middle of this pandemic, we need to do our part to protect renters from the tidal wave of evictions that we know is coming,” Wheeler said. “We need to support renters who may need to relocate due to rent increases.”
He also said he would be directing the Portland Housing Bureau to reallocate $500,000 of their funding to stabilize households. That money would be prioritized for East Portland households and families that spend a significant portion of their income on housing.
Michael Buonocore, the executive director of Home Forward, said Tuesday they too were taking steps to stop rent increases for vulnerable Portlanders. As Multnomah County’s public housing authority, the agency directly pays a portion of tenants' rent. Buonocore said that every year, landlords are able to ask to increase this rent. For the first time in 15 years, Buonocore said the authority will not allow this raise. He said the freeze starts this September and will continue through the end of 2021.
“We know that locally and nationally, economic and health crises hit people with low-incomes hardest — and people of color are burdened even more,” he said.
Buonocore said he could see these disparities demonstrated within his own program. He said 40% of Black and Latinx households and 43% of Native American households see their rents rise each year. Meanwhile, 23% of white households in their program get rent increases each year.
Existing racial disparities has meant the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be especially brutal for people of color. Wheeler highlighted some of these disparities Tuesday as he walked reporters through a presentation on the local housing market. According to the city, a renter needs to be making $60,000 annually in order for the average rent in Portland to be affordable. Just over 70% of Black households in Portland earn less than that, according to the slides presented by the Mayor’s office. Meanwhile, about 44% of white households are making less than that.
Another notable disparity: since May, between 12% to 15% of Portland renters have been unable to make their monthly rent payments. But that number is higher within communities of color. Between 12% to 25% of Latinx communities had been unable to make monthly payments, according to the city. Between 25% to 35% of Black communities have been unable to pay.
Kymberly Horner, the executive director of Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives, which provides affordable housing, said she’d seen firsthand the impact the pandemic had on the ability of low-income tenants to make rent. Since April, she said the agency has seen its income cut short by about $361,000 since tenants lost their jobs or had their hours reduced. She said this is affecting the nonprofit’s ability to make its own mortgage payments.
Horner said the group is working with the city to use money from the CARES Act to provide mortgage counseling to homeowners falling behind on their payments.
The mayor has said he believed the crisis tenants find themselves in could not be solved by canceling rent completely — a demand that has been made by both national tenants rights' activists and the Portland City Council. In April, the city council sent a letter to state and federal officials, asking them to forgive all rent and mortgage payments for renters and businesses. Asked about that letter Tuesday, Wheeler said it wasn’t going to happen.
“The short answer is the City has given up on that because there just is not an interest at other levels of government of moving those two things in tandem,” Wheeler said.
He noted canceling rent completely would put pressure on building owners and landlords, who may struggle to pay their mortgages and potentially lose their properties.
“And we all saw what happened in the 2008-2009 economic collapse,” he continued. “A lot of the local housing ended up in the hands of sovereign wealth funds, insurance trusts, and private equity portfolios. And I do not want that to happen either.”
Asked at the end of Tuesday’s press conference if he thought these steps would be enough for Portlander’s living on the edge, Wheeler said the answer was “unequivocally no.”
“That’s why I am putting an ask in here for our state partners and our federal partners to continue to work with us to get our arms around the magnitude of this problem,” he said. “With $120 to $125 million in back rent due, that’s far more resources than the City of Portland can provide.”