Oregon Cities

Eviction defense programs reach few Multnomah County tenants in need, study finds

Multnomah County renters are facing evictions at a rate nearly double that of pre-pandemic levels. While this trend can be explained by soaring housing costs, inflation, and a surge in eviction court filings put on hold during the state’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium, new research shows that this uptick can also be attributed to the shortfalls in legal and financial programs meant to help people threatened with eviction.

A “For Rent” sign in Southwest Portland, May 10. 2023.

A “For Rent” sign in Southwest Portland, May 10. 2023.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

A new Portland State University study found that, out of dozens of renters who were recently evicted in Multnomah County, only a quarter received eviction prevention help through nonprofit or government programs.

“It was pretty alarming to see how few tenants actually could access those programs,” said Alex Farrington, a researcher in PSU’s urban studies department who contributed to the report. “And some folks we talked to sort of tried to access or find resources and failed. So it wasn’t just that people didn’t seek them out.”

These findings come a year after Multnomah County voters rejected a ballot measure that would have ensured legal representation for anyone facing an eviction. At the time, county commissioners said this measure was unnecessary because the government already had adequate programs to support people at risk of losing their homes.

The PSU report says otherwise.

Researchers spoke with 68 renters who faced eviction since early 2020. The majority of tenants interviewed said they never sought help from eviction defense programs, largely because they didn’t know any resources were available. And half of those who did seek help weren’t able to access any due to numerous barriers.

“These results reveal that, despite the recent implementation of new forms of tenant support, these new programs often fail to reach many of the tenants who need them most,” the report reads.

There are several steps to eviction for people who haven’t paid rent.

First, renters receive a notice from their landlord informing them that they’ll be forcibly evicted if they don’t pay owed rent by a certain date. Anecdotal information tells researchers that it’s extremely common for renters to leave at this point, yet there is no formal record kept to track this. If the tenant doesn’t leave, the landlord files a civil complaint with the county court, and a court date is set. The court can dismiss this charge if the tenant pays before the trial, or it can instruct law enforcement to forcibly remove a renter from their apartment if there’s no payment.

Support for people facing eviction for not paying rent has fluctuated dramatically in the past five years, due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s financial impact. Between March 2020 and June 2021, the state imposed a moratorium on all evictions due to nonpayment. A state program then offered rent assistance to low-income tenants at risk of eviction until August 2022.

Evictions surged in the months – and years – since. In April 2019, landlords filed 468 eviction notices with the court This April, the courts saw nearly 900 eviction filings.

This uptick came despite the city and county putting money towards legal aid programs to support renters in eviction court. This can be a critical resource since low-income people facing eviction in court aren’t provided the kind of free legal defense criminal defendants are granted under the Constitution.

It’s a different story for landlords: In 2023, only 6% of tenants had legal representation in Multnomah County eviction court, while 56% of all landlords had a lawyer to fight on their behalf.

While a county ballot measure that would have used a capital gains tax to pay for legal defense for anyone facing an eviction failed in May 2023, the county pledged to fund additional legal and financial programs to help tenants at risk of losing their homes.

The county board put nearly 42 million dollars toward eviction prevention programs in the current year’s budget, with most of the money coming from federal pandemic assistance funds. Those short-term dollars have all but dried up. For this upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, the county has proposed spending $19 million on eviction prevention programs.

The PSU report doesn’t say these programs aren’t working to help tenants – they just aren’t reaching them.

“These resources can be really helpful,” said Farrington, “but it’s getting tenants in the door to have access to them in the first place that matters.”

And it’s not just recent resources that tenants aren’t attuned to. According to Farrington, several people surveyed were evicted during the statewide eviction moratorium, without ever knowing that a moratorium was in place. With legal support, they could have easily challenged the illegal eviction and remained housed.

The resources available to tenants now include free legal aid from the nonprofit Oregon Law Center, financial aid to cover rent funneled through community nonprofits, and information to educate tenants on their rights shared by advocacy groups like the Community Alliance of Tenants.

But even those resources can hit a dead end. Kim McCarty is the executive director of the Community Alliance of Tenants, which operates a hotline that tells renters how to get help in the face of an eviction. McCarty said that they regularly hear back from renters who tried to access help but were told that there weren’t enough resources or time to assist them.

“It’s a frightening message to be told – ‘Just hold on,’” McCarty said. “If someone thinks they’re about to lose their house, they don’t have the time to wait.”

This dynamic is reflected in the PSU study, which found that the pressure of a looming eviction can negatively impact renters’ physical and mental health. Many tenants surveyed noted increased anxiety, depression, insomnia, and high blood pressure caused by the added stress of an eviction notice. Farrington said this can explain why few tenants are able to get help.

“One reason that tenants have a hard time accessing resources is because the eviction process is so stressful and overwhelming and sort of all-consuming,” he said. “It’s kind of ridiculous to expect those tenants to themselves figure out how to connect to resources during that process.”

Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson, who oversees the county’s budget, acknowledged this issue in an email to OPB.

“Too many tenants don’t know about available programs, due to a lack of outreach, a lack of responsiveness, or their challenges with searching for assistance with an unfamiliar situation,” Vega Pederson wrote. “This means that thousands of Oregonians every year must undergo traumatizing eviction experiences without getting the help they desperately need.”

Indeed, the study’s findings aren’t unique to Multnomah County. Farrington and other PSU researchers are also studying the outcomes for tenants in other parts of Oregon and are seeing a similar lack of knowledge or access to resources that could prevent an eviction.

The report urges the state and local governments to increase funding for emergency rent assistance to help those at risk of displacement, bolster educational outreach to at-risk tenants and establish a program guaranteeing legal assistance to anyone facing eviction.

Tenant advocate McCarty said the risk of not acting could only worsen another statewide crisis.

“Isn’t it clear that this is leading to visible homelessness?” she said. “If the number of evictions are increasing in any way, and we don’t have enough shelter beds to accommodate people who become homeless, it’s obvious. We should be addressing this further upstream.”

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