Coya Crespin, an organizer with the Community Alliance of Tenants, said for the last few weeks she’s been hearing versions of the same question as she works with renters in the Portland-metro area: Can I be evicted during the pandemic?

Margot Black, the co-founder of renters rights group Portland Tenants United, said she’s been bombarded with Facebook messages and emails in a similar vein. Along with a few other group members, she said, she’s found herself serving as “renter 911.”

Multnomah County has a moratorium on evictions.

Multnomah County has a moratorium on evictions.

Jonathan Levinson/OPB

With a statewide eviction moratorium, a handful of countywide bans and courts closed to eviction cases, many Oregon renters and landlords are confused about their obligations.

“I’ve got my phone ringing off the hook with people asking, ‘What am I supposed to do?’” said Timothy Murphy, who represents landlords with Murphy Law Group P.C. “They’re all very worried that no one’s going to pay rent on April 1, but they don’t really know if they’re allowed to ask for it.” 

As the pandemic’s economic fallout continues, activists and attorneys said they’ve been fielding calls constantly from tenants and landlords confused by what the state and county moratoriums on evictions do and don’t mean. 

To find some answers, OPB asked two of Portland’s landlord-tenant attorneys to clarify the biggest sources of confusion: 

Misconception No. 1: Gov. Kate Brown’s eviction moratorium means a landlord can’t start an eviction proceeding. 

Brown issued an executive order March 22 that stopped law enforcement from evicting tenants who can’t pay their rent.

Courts across the state have stopped hearing eviction cases. But once they open back up, the governor’s moratorium does nothing to stop landlords from resuming the process that leads to a physical eviction: terminating the tenancy, filing an eviction case, winning the eviction case, and issuing a notice of restitution, which gives the tenant a few days to move out. 

“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,” said Troy Pickard, who handles landlord-tenant cases for law firm Portland Defender. 

Attorneys warn this means eviction judgments will amass, and the floodgates will open June 20 when the governor’s executive order expires. 

“The sheriff is going to be busy for the next month throwing people out of their house as a result of judgments that happened in the prior two or three months,” Murphy said. 

However, a handful of jurisdictions have passed their own eviction moratoriums, each of which can offer additional protections to renters. For example, Multnomah County issued a moratorium that allows tenants who have suffered a “substantial” loss of income due to COVID-19 to defer rent payments until after the state of emergency. 

The federal government has also provided some backstops. On Friday, federal lawmakers passed a coronavirus relief bill. Pickard said part of that package means if you’re renting a home with a federally-backed mortgage, your landlord can not file an eviction case against you for nonpayment of rent. 

But if you’re not renting a home where the landlord has this kind of mortgage or in an area that has not passed its own local moratorium, it’s likely you still have to pay rent – even if you have lost money due to COVID-19. Otherwise, your landlord could potentially start eviction proceedings against you when the courts open back up. 

The state could also expand on the governor’s executive order. Oregon state lawmakers are currently considering ways to build on it, possibly requiring tenants be given payment plans and barring landlords from charging late fees.

Misconception No. 2: Multnomah County’s eviction moratorium means I don’t have to pay rent right now. 

Not quite. If you live in Multnomah County, you can defer your rent payments if the reason you can’t pay is related to COVID-19 – i.e. you lost your job, you’re quarantined or your hours have been cut. That rent will be due six months after the county’s state of emergency ends.

But you have to let your landlord know that you’re not going to be able to pay on or before the day rent is due. Legal Aid Services of Oregon has a letter you can use as a template.

Misconception No. 3: In Multnomah County, just telling your landlord you can’t pay is sufficient to defer rent

If you need to delay payment of your rent in Multnomah County, you need to have documentation showing the reason you can’t pay is related to COVID-19.

“Say you’re a massage therapist and you come to people’s homes and give them massages,” Pickard said. “If you have a bunch of clients who canceled their appointment with you because everybody is isolating, then those kinds of letters showing that a bunch of your clients canceled on you … would be the kind of documentation we’re talking about.” 

Other options suggested by the Portland Housing Bureau include: a letter of termination from your employer that cites COVID-19 as the reason or a letter from a doctor recommending self-quarantine. 

If you don’t tell your landlord by the day rent’s due, Pickard said your landlord could issue a termination for nonpayment of rent, which gives the tenant less than a week to make up the rent.

“If you don’t pay by that deadline, then the landlord is gonna be able to file an eviction case against you,” Pickard said. “And as soon as the court’s open back up, the court’s gonna schedule a hearing.” 

Tenants with additional questions should check out: