It’s a tough time for renters who’ve been financially pummeled by the COVID-19 pandemic. After a year of moratoriums protecting tenants from losing their housing due to inability to pay rent, people started being evicted from their homes in Oregon this summer. Oregon’s statewide eviction moratorium expired on June 30, and an attempt by Pres. Biden to extend a federal moratorium was shot down by the U.S. Supreme Court in August.
There are still local protections for Oregon renters, though.
Shortly after the statewide moratorium ended, Multnomah County voted to allow a 90-day pause on evictions for anyone who’s applied for federal rent assistance. In much of the state, a 60-day pause is available. That program is quickly approaching a deadline, too: the U.S. Treasury says local governments have until the end of September to distribute two-thirds of that money, but the process has been slow and cumbersome. By mid-month, Oregon had only distributed 21% of that money.
It’s not entirely clear what will happen to those relief dollars on Oct. 1. After Sept. 30, the U.S. Treasury is allowed to take back funds that were allocated to states, but it is not required to do so. Oregon Housing and Community Services director Margaret Salazar has said she doesn’t believe the U.S. Treasury will reclaim Oregon’s funding, but the future remains uncertain.
There are still several local efforts to help connect renters with assistance. This week, Multnomah County launched a text message campaign to alert 380,000 residents about available assistance options. And attorneys at the Oregon Law Center launched the Eviction Defense Project, a statewide effort to provide tenants facing eviction with legal representation and resources.
In Portland, a new pilot program will aim to help renters work out disputes with their landlords before they head to eviction court. The city is working with the nonprofit Resolutions Northwest to establish their new free landlord-tenant mediation program. It was approved by Portland City Council in April to pay for professional mediators and, in some cases, provide rent assistance.
Erion Moore is the Director of Mediation at Resolutions Northwest. He said often, conflicts between landlords and tenants escalate before other options have been considered.
“And as we know,” Moore said, “in general conflicts, sometimes people won’t talk about it until it blows up.”
He said that in rent disputes, people are often shy about discussing financial issues: tenants are often hesitant to admit when they simply don’t have the money to pay.
Moore said the pilot program offers both coaching and professional mediation to help bridge the communication gap when tenants owe back rent.
“Sometimes we encourage them to say, ‘What is a good outcome? What is the best solution?’ and sometimes, people surprise themselves,” he said.
Many landlords are eager to avoid a costly and time-consuming eviction process too, he said.
“A lot of people think landlords are just ready to go to court,” Moore said. “But often that’s the last thing they want to do.”
The mediator will talk with each person individually, then bring the two together to facilitate a discussion if they both agree. The process is confidential, which means the information from mediation can’t be used in court.
“That allows the landlord and tenant to be creative,” Moore said. “They don’t have to worry about someone going to court and saying ‘hey, we didn’t work it out but this is what this person has already agreed to.’”
Tenants shouldn’t wait to initiate mediation until they have a formal eviction filed against them, or until they’ve applied for rent assistance programs Moore said, “As a matter of fact, it’s preferred people come to us first, for any issue.”
While the program is focusing on rent disputes, it’s not limited to conflicts over money — Moore said the pilot program is available to mediate disputes about pet odor, parking spaces, or any other conflict between renters and their landlords.
Northwest Resolutions’ landlord-tenant mediation pilot is just getting started; they haven’t held any successful mediations yet. In the pilot phase, they’re hoping to serve 100 renters in Portland — a sliver of residents who are currently behind on rent. Statewide data shows over 12,000 Multnomah county residents have applied for rent or utility assistance. This summer, a study by Portland State University estimated that over 125,000 Oregonians were at risk of eviction.
When the program was approved by Portland’s City Council in April, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty remained cautious about the impact the program could have relative to the scale of the need for rental assistance.
“I just don’t want to overpromise a pilot project like this, knowing the magnitude of the need out there,” she said.
But Moore said he’s hopeful a successful pilot could be a proof of concept that allows the tenant-landlord mediation to expand; first locally, and eventually, statewide.
“What we hope,” he said. “Is that we can be the pilot program in the state to show that if landlords and tenants actually have a conversation with an outside mediator, they can keep people in their homes. Because that’s the goal of the program: to keep people in their homes.”
Residents of Portland who are interested in taking part in the landlord-tenant mediation pilot can reach out to Resolutions Northwest by calling 503-595-4850 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oregonians facing eviction can also find out if they’re eligible for emergency rent assistance by visiting the state’s website or by dialing 211 to speak with someone about what options are available.
Those who have been served an eviction notice are encouraged to reach out to the Oregon Eviction Defense Project for free legal help by calling (888) 585-9638 or emailing email@example.com. Tenants should leave a message on the intake line or by emailing with their name, date of birth and eviction case number.
Listen to Erion Moore’s conversation with OPB’s John Notarianni using the audio player above