As the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic continue to mount, Portland and Multnomah County leaders announced Tuesday they will place a moratorium on most residential evictions for the duration of the crisis.
In an effort to keep people in their homes through the state of emergency issued by the county, landlords will not be able to evict people who have fallen behind on rent payments. Those who are behind due to a loss of income related to COVID-19 will be given a six month grace period to pay back their rent after the state of emergency is over. There will be no late fees. Those who can’t pay their rent or mortgage for reasons unrelated to the virus will not be at risk of eviction - but they will not have the six month period to make the payments.
The order takes effect Tuesday.
“For people who are losing their wages due to COVID-19 and find themselves unable to pay rent, we want you to be able to stay in your home,” said County Chair Deborah Kafoury at a Tuesday press conference announcing the moratorium. “Nobody at risk of homelessness should be removed from their home during this crisis or because of this crisis.”
In a prime example of the mile a minute nature in which policy decisions are being made during the pandemic, Mayor Ted Wheeler had originally joined Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury at Tuesday’s press conference to announce the city’s own moratorium on evictions. That rule was scratched an hour after the conference, as it became clearer that the county’s moratorium superseded the one created by the city, thereby making Portland’s own version unnecessary. Tomorrow, the city will vote to adopt the county’s moratorium within city limits.
Multnomah County’s state of emergency is set to expire April 10, though officials expect it will run longer. County court hearings on eviction proceedings are expected to be suspended until the end of April, according to the executive order.
In instating a moratorium on evictions, the county follows the lead of lawmakers in Los Angeles, New York, San Jose and San Francisco, who have pressed for temporary eviction bans. That list could soon grow. On Monday evening, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order giving local governments across the state the authority to stop evictions for renters and homeowners.
In order to be eligible for the moratorium, Multnomah County residents must demonstrate substantial loss of income as a result of the pandemic through “documentation or other objectively verifiable means,” according to the executive order issued by the county. Renters need to let landlords know they won’t be paying on or before the first day rent is due.
Penalties for landlords who disobey the executive order are still being hammered out. The Multnomah County attorney’s office has been asked to draft an ordinance that will impose retroactive fines and penalties.
The county order comes on the heels of a widely-circulated petition by local renter’s rights group Portland Tenants United, asking for a ban on all evictions during the emergency. The head of the group, Margot Black, said she felt the order crafted in response fell far short of what the group had demanded.
Black said she felt the hastily-crafted order had gaping holes in it that could affect people’s livelihoods and offered little in terms of real relief to renters. She said she was concerned renters could still be evicted for reasons unrelated to their failure to make rent. She was worried about the fate of tenants unlucky enough to be evicted one day before the moratorium, who now could live through the pandemic on the streets. And she said she had serious doubts about whether renters, deprived of steady wages potentially for months, could realistically come up with the missing rent money in the six months allotted to them.
“This idea that if you just have six months you can go scrape up a few grand is just so tone deaf,” she said. “It’s just now how most of the world works.”
A handful of protesters in the audience of Tuesday’s press conference made it clear they, too, felt the policy didn’t go far enough to relieve the pain renters across the city were poised to feel as a result of the pandemic. One person temporarily interrupted the press conference and stood in front of the podium demanding a rent freeze until the economy’s in full recovery. Another threatened to cough on the mayor.
Multnomah County Communications Director Julie Sullivan-Springhetti said in a statement after the conference that she found such actions “shocking and unacceptable.”
“Disruptive and threatening behavior is harmful, counterproductive and could be criminal,” wrote Sullivan-Springhetti, adding that a protester had also repeatedly coughed in the face of a young security guard.
The moratorium will likely result in a loss of cash flow for landlords. Last Friday, the head of landlord trade group Multifamily NW, Deborah Imse, warned the city needed a “comprehensive solution” to maintaining housing stability during this crisis.
“It makes no sense to halt evictions if it leads to a wave of foreclosures on rental properties,” Imse wrote.
At Tuesday’s conference, Wheeler said the city was working on it. He said the city’s meeting with its banking partners on Thursday to discuss how landlords and building owners could be given coverage to endure the expected loss of cash.
“Just as we are asking building owners and landlords to make sacrifices, we’re going to ask our local banking and credit union partners to make sacrifices as well,” he said.
City and County officials also used the press conference as a chance to unveil other steps they were taking to mitigate the impacts of the virus.
Kafoury said the county will begin opening hundreds of new shelter beds that will allow officials to follow the current county guidelines, which ask all shelters to create a six foot buffer around the beds of people showing symptoms of COVID-19: coughing, fever, shortness of breath. Shelter operators have warned they will not be able to follow this guidance without making extra space by cutting shelter capacity. She said these beds will be opened by the end of the week, possibly opening in some of the public buildings that have recently been shut down for the duration of the crisis.
Wheeler announced, as of Monday, he’d created a Portland-focused task force dedicated to helping small and large employers reeling from the economic impacts of the virus. The mayor said the city was making $150,000 worth of grants available for the Jade District Neighborhood Prosperity Network to get assistance to businesses as quickly as possible as that is the area that has been among the hardest impacted by the economic downturn.
Wheeler said, anecdotally, he’s heard stories of business in the area losing as much as 40% to 60% in profits since the beginning of this crisis.
The mayor also said he’s observed people taking the CDC’s social distancing recommendations seriously and expects the closure of bars and restaurants across the state will help.
Asked if the city was considering shelter in place rules implemented Monday in six Bay Area counties, Wheeler said it is still an option.
“This is a crisis that is changing by the day,” he said. “I am taking my guidance from public health officials and medical experts and at this point they have not made that recommendation, but everything remains on the table as an option going forward.”