According to lawmakers and advocates, many Oregonians are at risk for eviction due to the backlog of unprocessed applications for rental assistance. Amber Cook is one of them. She’s a licensed income tax preparer, which means her work is seasonal. She says she hasn’t been able to take advantage of expanded unemployment benefits, and getting sick with COVID-19 just before the extreme heat struck Oregon in June has set her back significantly. We hear from Cook about what she and other renters are facing right now.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
DAVE MILLER: Since the eviction moratorium lapsed at the end of June eviction filings for nonpayment of rent have skyrocketed in Oregon. They are up more than sixfold. In that same period The state has struggled to process thousands of applications for federal rental assistance that could stave off eviction. We’re going to hear one renter’s story right now about the intersection of COVID-19 unemployment and the fear of eviction. Amber Cook lives in Portland and is a licensed income tax preparer, a writer and a long term member and activist with the Community Alliance of Tenants. What has employment looked like for you over the course of the pandemic?
AMBER COOK: For me, I’ve been working doing the filing of income taxes during the tax season that runs from January through spring. And one of the upshots for me is that while there’s been this very helpful federal weekly unemployment supplement for $600 and then $300 this year, each year it happened just as I was working and then cut off soon after my employment ended and the tax season was over.
MILLER: So that was just the seasonality of your work and the particular timing of that really big bump in federal unemployment benefits, meaning that you couldn’t take advantage of the $600 extra a week that the Feds were giving?
COOK: This is the part of the problem. Instead of having a very clear supplement and eviction moratorium that’s just fixed to go on as long as the crisis is going on, it’s been effectively jerking people around. We haven’t known if it will be extended or not, when it’s going to happen and a lot of people fall through the cracks because it’s not comprehensive.
MILLER: There were the stimulus payments from the federal government though. How much have those helped you over the last year and a half?
COOK: I think it’s a safe way to say it’s helped keep my car running, you know, to keep me having a car and being able to be work ready that way.
MILLER: That has been a real lifesaver. Without that money, you couldn’t have gas money or make car payments and you couldn’t drive to work?
COOK: It did make a substantial difference.
MILLER: My understanding is that you ended up getting COVID-19 in June so not too long ago. What was your experience with the virus?
COOK: I got home one day with a fever and it took me about six days before I could even leave my place to go to urgent care to get tested and diagnosed. I had fever running for two entire weeks and those two weeks were right before the heatwave struck. So I had to spend about $400 to get into a motel to spend those two days just to make sure that I didn’t overheat in a way that was terminal.
MILLER: That sounds terrifying.
COOK: Well, I’m lucky that I had that option. Not everyone did.
MILLER: Where are you living right now?
COOK: I live at Milepost Five, which is a former artist community started by our former mayor Sam Adams. It’s since been bought out and is now more like transition housing. But it’s here in the Montavilla neighborhood.
MILLER: Have you been able to pay rent over the course of the pandemic?
COOK: There were three months when the pandemic in the last year after my seasonal unemployment ended that I wasn’t able to pay and then I started working again in the tax season kind of in the off season. I’ve had more challenges this year with COVID-19 because I was in the process of applying for jobs just as I got what I believe is the delta variant. And so for example, I applied for the OERAP over three months ago and haven’t heard
MILLER: You haven’t gotten any money from them?
COOK: Right. That’s a huge problem. At least 80% of us haven’t gotten funds even though it’s been months.
MILLER: This is the new pot of federal money following state help earlier. And you’re saying you haven’t. So you applied three months ago and do you know the status even of your application?
COOK: What I was told is that they had some issues seeing my documents. It’s taken a long, long, long time to get responses even though I’ve sent them everything they need. So I just heard back saying your application is now being kind of pushed through for a review. That’s three and a half to four months later.
MILLER: I want to hear more about that rental assistance program. That is the subject of a lot of focus right now. But I want to go back first. You said that for three months you couldn’t pay. What happened in terms of the dealings with your landlord for those three months of rent?
COOK: I do want to say for example that my weekly state benefits are at $170 per week. And that’s not enough to cover rent, even living in low income life tech housing, just the insanity there. I got lucky. There was a rental assistance program early on where you could apply for a $500 gift card. It was in a lottery system. I happened to get that. Thanks to Multnomah County, once I was diagnosed with COVID, I got a call from the Multnomah County Health Authority that helped me track COVID things, but also made a connection with a charity and they got me a really large grocery delivery and covered a month’s rent.
MILLER: And that wasn’t something that you had to reach out for. That was proactive work on the part of the County, once they were alerted to the fact that you were tested positive?
COOK: That’s why I want to say a very big public thank you because the Multnomah County Commissioners who set this up really did a good thing.
MILLER: What did that mean for you?
COOK: You know, it means that I was able to have all my questions answered directly by a health care professional specializing in COVID, that I understood how to quarantine and again, that I got that assistance.
MILLER: So let’s turn to the rental assistance program that you and thousands of Oregonians and also thousands and thousands of people all over the country, as the various states are very slowly working their way through these applications, people are just waiting to hear. I’ve seen that the application process in Oregon has been described as really cumbersome and complicated. How would you describe it?
COOK: Exactly that. I’m really good with these things with, you know, filling out forms and...
MILLER: You’re a tax preparer. I think that says it all. But if you weren’t particularly computer savvy or super literate in bureaucratic forms or really proficient in English, do you think you could have navigated this system to apply for federal funds?
COOK: I think it would be incredibly challenging. And speaking as a tenant organizer in my building, I know a lot of people who started the process and gave up. The Community Alliance of Tenants has tried to set up people who can help other people apply. So if somebody is together enough and they find out about that resource, they can get someone on their team. That’s worked. But I know that a lot of times people have had to have help.
MILLER: The eviction moratorium is over right now. All of these dates and the details of what this language means, are relatively complicated. But from my understanding, one of things that means is that starting in July people had to pay rent. And that’s one of the big reasons that evictions are ramping up now is for nonpayment of rent just in the last couple of months. Are you working right now or are you still in the off-season in terms of tax preparing?
COOK: I’ve been in recovery from COVID, so I’m applying for jobs. But yeah, I mean anyways there’re just a lot of health issues and complications coming from the way that the COVID virus wears your body down.
MILLER: Are you able to pay your rent these days?
COOK: I just happened to connect with an employment specialist that I know and her organization was connected to an organization doing rental assistance. And so you know this is part of the point I want to make. I’ve had three lucky strikes that have allowed me to get rental assistance. That puts me in a very select category of a few.
MILLER: Does it actually strike you as luck or is it more a question that you’re connected to the systems that are out there. Even if they are limited, you either know people or know people who know people who can connect you with help and not everybody has that level of sort of bureaucratic sophistication?
COOK: Yeah. When I say lucky, I mean that I have the belief that I deserve some assistance. Whereas the vast majority of people that I work with and talk to just feel hopeless about it. So they don’t even bother either to look or they’re not plugged in.
MILLER: How close do you feel that you have gotten despite privilege or luck or whatever. But despite that, how close do you feel that you have gotten to getting an eviction notice?
COOK: It’s certainly been somewhere between scary and terrifying for months now.
MILLER: You know, for months now obviously rent is just one expense. For most people housing is the single biggest one. But what about other ones? What about food or car payments or gas going forward?
COOK: I have about $1,200 of repairs waiting on my car that I’ll have to wait until the tax season starts again to be able to do.
MILLER: What would you like to see from the state or the federal government that would be different from the cobbled-together systems that have been put in place in a kind of ad-hoc and emergency way over the last 18 months? What’s a system that you would want to see?
COOK: Well, I mean that’s exactly what we’ve been working on. We have people like AOC and Cory Bush and the Progressive Caucus all pushing for a federal eviction moratorium because people are in a bad way financially through no fault of their own. And there’s still this huge threat of getting a deadly virus. We just need to keep people in their homes and the best way would be for that to happen federally. I was part of a press conference with the Community Alliance of Tenants two weeks ago. We stood in front of the capitol and we asked the Governor to call a special session for the pandemic housing situation. And the CAT board sent her an official letter requesting the same thing. And we’ve never received a response. It’s been two weeks and, you know, every day... It’s vital that she calls the special session so that we can scale back this huge huge number of evictions that are happening kicking people out.
MILLER: If it were up to you, how long would the eviction moratorium be in place? I mean, what would your trigger be for when it’s no longer necessary? The longer we go in the pandemic, the harder it is to know when it will be over.
COOK: Absolutely. It has to be somewhere between how many people are getting sick and infected and how many people can get work. And you know, one thing we just have to understand is that it’s easy to say there’re jobs out there. But most employers are doing everything they can to keep your hours down, your wage down, your benefits down. So you know, there may be some jobs to go back to but they’re jobs you can’t live on.
MILLER: What do you most wish that people who are not at risk for eviction understood about what you’re going through and the people that you’re in touch with are going through?
COOK: You know, I think a lot of people who were working and I’ll just call them office jobs even though that’s a category. But jobs where you could just simply stay home and your job continued. You know, you got the same income. I think it’s very hard for a lot of people in that situation who remained nicely cushioned to understand what it’s like to be in a position when you know, a lot of your jobs have been cut off and they’re unavailable, and again, the economic system is squeezing them down to make them so that even if you were out there working, you still couldn’t afford rent.
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Editor’s note: The photo caption on this story has been updated to correct the timing of when eviction moratoriums ended in Oregon. OPB regrets the error.