Oregon businesses unable to pay their rent because of the coronavirus are temporarily safe from eviction under a new executive order issued Wednesday by Gov. Kate Brown.
Under the emergency order, commercial tenants who offer proof that they can’t pay rent because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic cannot be formally evicted or have their lease terminated, but must make partial payments if able.
Brown also strengthened a March 22 order banning residential evictions for nonpayment, ensuring that landlords cannot initiate eviction proceedings on their tenants or charge late fees if a tenant is unable to pay because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“During this unprecedented public health crisis, too many Oregonians have found themselves with no way to pay the monthly rent for their homes and businesses," Brown said in a statement. "These are difficult times. This order will help Oregon small businesses stay in their locations without the threat of eviction."
The order — issued as rents come due around the state — is the among the strongest actions Brown has taken to date to limit economic consequences for those impacted by the ongoing public health crisis.
While some local communities have taken similar steps, it creates statewide protections for the wide array of businesses that have been forced to close their doors, or are otherwise struggling to do business as usual.
Where residential evictions are concerned, Brown’s previous order banned law enforcement officers in Oregon from enforcing evictions, but didn’t stop landlord from beginning formal proceedings.
"The only thing that's on pause right now is the sheriff's ability to go in and actually rip a tenant out of the door if the tenant won't leave," Troy Pickard, who handles landlord-tenant cases for law firm Portland Defender, told OPB recently.
Pickard and others worried that evictions would simply build up under such a system, causing a flood of people displaced from their homes when Brown’s order was lifted.
The governor’s new order goes further. For the next 90 days, it prohibits landlords from even initiating eviction proceedings against tenants for the nonpayment of rent. They also may not charge late fees or penalties.
Businesses seeking protection from the order have 30 days from the day rent is due to give their landlord “documentation or other evidence that nonpayment is caused by, in whole or in part, directly or indirectly, the COVID-19 pandemic,” the order says. “Acceptable documentation or other evidence includes, without limitation, proof of loss of income due to any governmental restrictions imposed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”
Brown is also mandating that tenants who cannot pay full rent “notify the landlord as soon as reasonably possible; and shall make partial rent payments to the extent the tenant is financially able to do so.”
Pickard, the tenant attorney, says the order is an improvement from Brown's first effort.
"It hits the brakes statewide on landlords issuing notices of termination or filing evictions," he said Wednesday. "That’s a big deal."
Still, Pickard says the order could lead to a situation where landlords initiate evictions en masse once it expires.
He also believes the order creates the possibility that tenants could be held criminally liable if they held a rent strike in response to the crisis, as some have advocated. That's because of the requirement that tenants pay at least a portion of the rent if they are able to do so. Violation of the order is punishable as a class C misdemeanor.
"From my point of view, I would think the governor would want to change that," Pickard said.
Brown's order closely resembles a proposal from Oregon legislators, who have planned to take up eviction moratoriums and other matters in a special session. But while such a session has seemed imminent for days, Brown has so far not signaled she’s ready to call legislators back to work.
The governor’s office and legislative leaders have debated behind the scenes whether a session is necessary in the short term, or whether the state can use more than $1 billion in expected federal aid to address urgent priorities, according to legislative sources.
Beyond an eviction moratorium, lawmakers have floated proposals to halt foreclosures, make it easier for employees to take state-mandated sick time, and to improve access to the state’s healthcare system.