Once again, Oregon has distinguished itself from the rest of the country when it comes to paying rent in a pandemic.
Last month, Oregon residential renters came the closest of any state to making monthly payments at their pre-pandemic pace, according to data from RealPage, a large property management software company. Eighty-two percent of Oregon units made a rent payment within the first week of April, down 7 percentage points from the year before. (The company doesn’t track whether this was a full or partial payment.)
No other state had a smaller decline.
Why has Oregon risen to the top of the pack? Even economists are scratching their heads.
“I just don’t see any pattern to the states as to why some are high and others are low,” Tom Potiowsky, director of Portland State University’s Northwest Economic Research Center and former state economist, wrote in an email.
Another unexpected trend? As the country gets deeper into the shutdown, more people appear to be making rent payments. Potiowsky said his initial thoughts jumped to the arrival of federal stimulus checks. National news outlets have reasoned similarly in explaining why the percentage of people paying rent in the first week across the U.S. increased from April (69%) to May (80%), according to National Multifamily Housing Council, a landlord trade group tracking rent payments during the pandemic.
This is not the trend many Oregon landlords had expected. Last month, the Rental Housing Alliance Oregon, an association composed primarily of small landlords, sent out a survey trying to gauge how many of their landlords were receiving rent. Kenneth Schriver, the head of the association, provided examples of respondents’ comments to OPB at the time, many saying April was shaping up alright, but they worried about this month:
“I expect my rent percentage to go down again to 50% for May.”
“May 2020 and forward could be disastrous.”
“I was surprised with how many tenants paid in April, but May may be different.”
But, so far, it doesn’t look like May was all that different from April. Entrata and RealPage — two of the four software companies contributing data to the National Multifamily Housing Council —actually saw a small increase in the percentage of payments in the first week of May in Oregon compared with April. And, in an email, Schriver said early responses on the alliance’s survey for May indicate the numbers were “not so different from April at this point.”
Of the 90 landlords who had responded, 15% have received less than full rent. Schriver said they’re expecting to release the full results of both their survey and one conducted by Multifamily NW, a large landlord trade group, later this week.
But this rosier-than-expected forecast comes with significant caveats. The data for RealPage comes from professionally managed buildings, which tend to have wealthier tenants, and excludes units owned by mom-and-pop landlords. And even though smaller landlords also seem to be doing alright so far, Schriver said after a preliminary look at the survey results, quite a few have made a personal sacrifice to reduce the burden on tenants — temporarily waiving or reducing rents.
Meanwhile, tenants’ rights activists said a possible explanation for the high percentage could be that renters are being pressured to make partial payments, even though they’re not legally bound to do so under the state’s eviction moratorium. A popular Facebook group for Portland-area tenants — PDX Renters Unite! — has a number of posts from renters saying their landlords have them confused over whether they’re required to craft a payment plan.
Alli Sayre, an organizer with Portland Tenants United, said the real way to help tenants with a backlog of rent that will eventually be due won’t be through stimulus checks or payment plans — but by waiving rent.
“Frankly, the relief that’s been offered doesn’t go far enough. We need rent relief for residential and commercial tenants as well as mortgage relief,” said Sayre. “Because it’s simply not realistic for someone who lost their job to be able to pay back rent.”