Over 16,000 renters have had evictions filed against them in Oregon this year. And eviction filings surpassed pre-pandemic levels in August, September and October of this year. (The state’s emergency rental assistance and “safe harbor” protections ended in September.) That’s according to Evicted in Oregon, a new project led by Portland State University researchers who collect court data on Oregon evictions and publish them online.
Lisa Bates is a professor in PSU’s Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, and Colleen Carroll is a community research partnerships coordinator with the school. They join us to explain how publicly sharing eviction data could help inform better housing policies.
Editor’s note: This post initially misstated the number of evictions filed this year. It has been corrected.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Over 16,000 Oregon renters have had evictions filed against them since the beginning of this year. In recent months, eviction filings surpassed pre pandemic levels. That’s according to Evicted in Oregon, a new project led by Portland State University researchers who’ve been collecting court data on Oregon evictions and publishing that data online. Lisa Bates is a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University. Colleen Carroll is a community research partnerships coordinator with the school. They both join us to talk about this project. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Lisa Bates: Thanks Dave.
Colleen Carroll: Hello.
Miller: Colleen Carroll, what is the overall idea behind this project behind evicted in Oregon?
Carroll: The overall idea is to really begin to understand evictions beyond what is almost like a movie definition or a simplistic definition, which is a lockout; [it’s] one step in a long process and series of decisions made by people and people in businesses with unequal amounts of power and unequal amounts of understanding, that lead to people losing their homes. And when we take the word “eviction” and understand its definition to the full scope of what happens, we see that there are lots of ways that displacement by the eviction process happen and understanding them helps us think about how we can prevent them.
Miller: What are some of those events? If you’re saying that it’s not a one-time moment, it’s a series of decisions or events, what are they? What’s this process?
Carroll: There are illegal evictions and legal evictions. I think it’s worth starting there. There are a whole set of things that are considered a legal way to remove somebody from their home, and then there are a whole set of illegal evictions. At this time this project is not able to see or look at illegal evictions, but we know they are happening, so it’s important to start there. But even within what is considered viable and legal and reputable evictions, there are lots of steps. It starts with a notice of termination. The landlord starts by providing a notice. We don’t see those and not only just our project, but at large, we don’t see how many of those are happening, but we know that lots of people move out at that stage. So when somebody moves out, as opposed to finding another way of addressing whatever the issue is, there’s lots of other things that could intervene and keep somebody in their home at that stage.
Miller: When you say that we don’t see that happening, meaning as researchers, there’s no way for you to accurately collect the data of people who get that notice, get that letter, and then move out. You would call that an eviction?
Carroll: Absolutely, that person has been displaced by the eviction process.
Bates: So those notices are strictly a communication between the landlord and the tenant. In Oregon, those notices are not recorded anywhere. That’s not true in all states. But here, it’s a letter, it’s an email, it’s something that’s taped to your door. And it’s communication only between those two people. We only see what that looks like, what exactly is communicated, if the tenant does not move out at that point and the landlord ends up filing the court case of eviction.
Miller: So when I said that that number, which is one of the headlines – and there are probably a lot of different possible headlines from what you put out so far – of 16,000 eviction proceedings in court just in 2022 so far, the people who got that notice, got that letter, and then left their apartments as a result, they’re not included in that 16,000?
Miller: Is there any way to estimate the level of displacement then that’s not being recorded judicially?
Bates: Not really numerically, at this point. We know from communicating with, for example, organizations like Community Alliance of Tenants which runs a rental hotline, or other service providers around the state, when they see increases in calls for assistance for support, questions that they’re getting about notices. But we can’t say, from a research sense, this is exactly the number, or this is exactly the percentage of all terminations that result in the court case.
Miller: So Colleen Carroll, to go back to the overall picture of how these processes work. I sort of stopped you at one of the exit ramps, one of the versions of displacement before it becomes a judicial proceeding. Let’s say that somebody does not leave their home once they get that letter. What are the next possible steps?
Carroll: The next step is likely a filing with the court. And again, this comes with a difference in power and decision making. When that paper gets filed sets the day of the trial, so the landlord has some control of knowing when that first appearance will be held. A tenant will get a summons from the court for a date for their first appearance. What if you have to work that day? What if you have to take your kid to the doctor that day? There are lots of things that could be happening on that day. And if you don’t show up to that first appearance – it’s not your trial, but it is the first appearance – you lose by default. And that’s one of the ways that many of these cases end, before any hearing has happened, before the judge has heard anything about the case. So that’s one thing that as a research team we’re curious and looking at and understanding. How do we get more tenants to due process?
And then at first appearance, the way that the court is set up, there are hundreds of these cases filed each day. There are often 50-100 cases in Multnomah County on the docket a day, and there are not that many trial spaces. Something has to happen to take 50 cases and bring it down to, say, 4-5 trials a day. And the judge basically requires the landlord and the tenant to have a talk. They say, “Please step out into the hallway and talk for a few minutes and see if you can come to some agreement.” Except that agreement is a court-ordered and then a court-supported agreement called a stipulated agreement. Many of these cases can include move out dates or payment plans, any number of things that are able to be supported by the court. And if that agreement isn’t followed to the letter, it results in an automatic eviction.
Miller: When you say that the judge would say to the landlord and tenant, “Go outside and figure this out and then come back to me,” is it those two parties or is it lawyers, if one or both of these parties have lawyers?
Carroll: That’s a great question, thank you. It is often a lawyer for the landlord or an agent. Landlords are allowed to be represented by agents in Oregon and tenants are not. And so [it’s] either the agent or the representative or the lawyer for the landlord and then often it’s a tenant. If that tenant has had the opportunity to get a lawyer then they might also have some support there. So it’s whoever is representing either side of the case. But as you point out, we know and the data shows on the website, there are much higher rates of representation for landlords than there are for tenants. In that two-to-three minute conversation there’s a huge imbalance of power and of knowledge and what I would like to call ‘fluency’ in the language of the court. Somebody who is in that court and working every day is obviously much more fluent, whether they themselves are a landlord who has gone through the process a couple of times or obviously if they are an agent or a lawyer, they’re much more fluent in the processes and the language of the court and that gives them an advantage. So that two-to-three minute negotiation is coercive.
Bates: There are some counties and some programs in which that conversation includes a mediator as a neutral party. There is still not a lot of time and still an imbalance – [if] a professional property manager, professional landlord or agent has this experience and knowledge, they also can consult with their attorney. But one of the things that’s important in our work is that we’re trying to clarify what exactly happens in the room [because it] can vary quite a bit from place to place. Yet at the same time, underpinning all of that, is an inexperienced person who’s having one of the worst days of their life in a conversation with a business person who owns the space in which they call their home.
Miller: Does a renter have the legal option to say to a judge, “No, I don’t want to go into the hallway and figure this out, just me and the landlord. I’d like to have this hashed out in court.” Can they say that, assuming they have the courage and feel they have the ability to do that?
Carroll: Yes, they do have the right. The conversation often sounds like the judge telling them all of the risks and downsides but not telling them what the benefits are. So the risks and downsides include things like – if you go to trial and you lose at trial, you are liable for the court fees and the legal fees of the landlord, and those can be thousands of dollars. Now, what the judge often doesn’t say is that those fees can also be negotiated into a stipulated agreement and often are. So it’s not like you avoid that altogether by foregoing your right to a trial. But yes, the tenant can insist on a trial and then the judge will often ramble off a quick set of very important things in a very short amount of time.
These procedural steps which we try to lay out on the website, at each intervention, if not done correctly, can cause the tenant to lose the case, not on the merits of the case but through these procedurals. That’s like filing an answer. And what that is, is your defense only in response to what the landlord alleges in the complaint. The tenants are not given information about what it would look like to file a counterclaim, which is a separate step, and also how to file evidence. Through our court observation, which is a part of the research, court observers are often seeing tenants showing up to trial the day of, ready to do what they think is all of the right steps, and because they haven’t filed evidence correctly, they aren’t allowed to use it. And so again, not having full due process at many steps in the procedure. While trials do get set, but again the proportion is so minimal to how many cases get filed.
Miller: Lisa Bates, one of the aspects of this work is that we can now look at a map in terms of eviction rates in different census tracts all across the state. What did you find in terms of the likelihood of evictions statewide?
Bates: Unsurprisingly, Multnomah County has a fairly high eviction rate. There are a lot of renters here in Portland and the surrounds. But there are also pretty dramatically high eviction rates in some other parts of the state where all of these procedures that Colleen is describing may take place with even less support for tenants. There are fewer services available, fewer advocates or organizations in the community who can support tenants in those experiences. We also collaborate with a group from the University of California at Berkeley in the Eviction Research Network. It’s part of a national network of researchers trying to describe and investigate evictions who have estimated deep racial disparities in eviction rates in Oregon, and looking across the state and seeing some of these spikes and evictions across the state in areas with Latino populations, for Black folks, for Indigenous folks who are more likely to be evicted.
Miller: Colleen Carroll, what did you learn about the most common reasons for evictions?
Carroll: On the website, you’re able to see some of the different reasons. This was a really interesting piece of the research for me. Being able to see that a non-payment of rent - which is a tenant’s ability to pay rent either one month, or maybe not even the full month’s rent, maybe they tried to pay partial rent - are about 65% of the filings. It cuts into a common talking point that we think that evictions are almost all non-payment and there’s really nothing to be done except for increased rental assistance. I think that our data shows that’s not true. Non-payment of course is important, but there are many other reasons. There are what are called “for cause” reasons and those are anything from a pet that didn’t get registered or an issue that is brought with the lease. These are things like maybe your screen fell off or any number of other things. There are “no cause” evictions that are back and happening. These are filings where the landlord does not have to give a cause in addition to other things called landlord reasons, like renovations or maybe they’re moving in a family member.
Looking at the scope of the reasons that people are being evicted, what we can really say with confidence is it is not just a rental assistance issue. There are many more things happening in our communities and people are losing homes. When we dig even deeper into the nonpayment issues, one of the things that comes to me is thinking about all of the other diversion possibilities, especially when it’s a one month or less than one month’s rent. Obviously, we don’t know how long somebody’s been in their unit but if somebody’s being evicted – really losing their home – I have a kid, so I often think about what it would mean for me and my kid. You moved away from your schooling, your job, because of one month’s rent. Something happened in my life and I’ve got to pay a bill or something like that. What are the other diversion possibilities that we could do to intervene? This notice of termination or court filing, that’s going to follow me for many, many years, no matter how it’s resolved. Once that’s filed in court, that has the potential to harm me as a tenant for many years to come. What are the many ways that we can address nonpayment of rent that don’t require evictions?
Miller: What are some ideas that you have? And I think it’s worth sticking with the non-payment of rent because in some ways that seems like both the most talked about and maybe the clearest scenario here. The one where, as you noted, providing rental support would seem to be the most common solution that’s put forward. But what else should happen, would you argue? And I’d love to hear both of you on this. If a tenant has said, “I will pay ‘X’ amount of rent every month” and then for whatever reason, they don’t?
Bates: Certainly when we look nationally, non-payment is by far the single most common cause for eviction. We can see some examples, particularly coming out of the pandemic emergency declaration time, of programs that have promising practices for diverting people from eviction at that point. One is to simply require negotiations before an eviction case is filed. This is a program like they have in the city of Philadelphia, where it is incumbent on the landlord to demonstrate good faith negotiation with a tenant who does have an advocate and representative, and also for the landlord themselves to seek financial compensation and rental assistance rather than placing the burden on the tenant to find that assistance. There are also other defenses to nonpayment of rent. And again, it depends on the legal framework of landlord-tenant relations or tenants’ rights that exist in the state. For example, if someone has been withholding rent because their unit is missing basic utility infrastructure, that can be legally allowed in some other places. But trying to understand the ways that increased knowledge, information, and advocacy on the tenant’s part can move us away from the most damaging kinds of outcomes: tenants to be abruptly displaced from their home, owe enormous sums of money, experience financial liens, or have default evictions on their record. That can be destabilizing in the short term and over a long period of time.
Miller: Colleen Carroll, we are talking just two or three months after the state’s “safe harbor” protections ended. What have you seen since then, in terms of eviction proceedings?
Carroll: They’ve ramped up quite a bit. We’re averaging over 2,000 cases being filed a month and that’s higher than before the pandemic. I think that this comes at a time where there’s immense economic pressure on so many people across the nation, and also here. Yes, we’re seeing the eviction numbers go up, the filing numbers go up.
I want to go back to your question earlier – what do we do for nonpayment cases where a tenant has agreed to pay a certain amount? I just want to dig in on this question of power and what our real choices and options are in the world of renting today. There is a national conversation about rent stabilization because we don’t have as much choice. It’s not like we’re agreeing freely or with full choice. I think about the unit that I’m in now. Every year the price of this unit goes up and my choice to agree is to stay here or to try and find something that likely is even more expensive for the same amount of space and within the same school district. Though, on paper, I might agree, I don’t have a lot of choice in how much that rent is going up. Again, that takes me back to this idea that when you miss rent for that first month because you’re trying desperately to get that second job to make up for the hundreds of dollars your rent has gone up, because it’s going up every year.
Here in Oregon, we’re talking about how we can make our rent stabilization stronger. Nationally there is a real conversation for the first time, I think at least in my lifetime, about understanding the assumption that the cost of our homes can go up infinitely along with the market. My rent doesn’t go down; my landlord doesn’t offer me a discount when things change, it just assumes that it goes up. [We’re looking at] rent stabilization locally and enforcing tenants’ rights to be able to speak freely and without the fear of retaliation in the form of non-payment for when things go wrong in my apartment. Rent stabilization, tenancy free from harassment and free from the fear of retaliation, are all things that we can do to think about intervening in making our homes safer, more stable, and the process of adjudicating these things a bit more fair.
Miller: Colleen Carroll and Lisa Bates, thanks very much.
Carroll / Bates: [in unison] Thank you.
Miller: Colleen Carroll is the community research partnerships coordinator at Portland State University, where Lisa Bates is a professor of Urban Studies and Planning. We were talking about their project called Evicted in Oregon.
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