Gonzalez Montero said that in his home country of Cuba, he was raised in a community that favored strong protections for low-income renters. Society was supposed to help people struggling to keep a roof over their heads, he felt. Now that he was experiencing it personally, his heart began to sink.
Everything changed when a case worker from Bienestar de la Familia, a program of Multnomah County’s Department of County Human Service (DCHS), stepped in to halt his eviction with an offer for rental assistance.
“I feel blessed and finally able to breathe with the help that they gave me,” he said.
Gonzales Montero took time off work to show his support at a Tuesday, Nov. 8, briefing to the Board of County Commissioners where housing experts with DCHS and the Joint Office of Homeless Services emphasized the urgent need for the continuation and expansion of rent assistance and eviction prevention programs that have helped thousands of people in their homes.
The briefing provided an update on the County’s COVID-19 emergency rent assistance response for fiscal year 2023 so far. It also included an overview of resources that have been allocated for the fiscal year, ways in which the resources are deployed, system priorities, and projections for future gaps in eviction prevention resources in Multnomah County.
Right now, Multnomah County is able to process about $57 million in emergency rent assistance, using federal funds, local funds and resources from the Metro Supportive Housing Services Measure. But with need in the community growing at the same time as COVID-19 protections are expiring, program leaders said they need approximately $14.3 million more to meet rent assistance needs through the rest of the fiscal year.
Chair Deborah Kafoury pledged to look into closing the current funding gap when the County receives its next budget forecast this fall.
“We are looking at all of our revenue collection as we approach the fall forecast,” Chair Kafoury said. “Closing that $14 million gap, that is definitely a very, very high priority for me.”
Renter protections expire despite unmet need
The economic upheaval created by the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated housing instability for many households, particularly those from communities of color.
But through the first two years of the pandemic, state and local eviction renter protections and eviction moratoria played critical roles in helping households stay in their homes and prevented large-scale homlessness. Those protections have since lapsed.
“The pandemic surfaced challenges for renters and disparities that did not begin with the pandemic, nor will it end [with the pandemic], especially for communities of color who are hardest hit,” said Peggy Samolinski, who directs the Department of County Human Services’ Youth and Family Services Division.
Nearly 13,000 households received rent assistance between July 2021 and June 2022—a total of $77.3 million rent assistance distributed among them. Of those households, 33% had a 10-day eviction notice. Nearly 80% of recipients were Black, Indigenous and other people of color.
Now, as many renters continue to struggle to pay rent, there are few, if any, legal protections standing between nonpayment and eviction. At the same time, rent assistance resources for fiscal year 2023 (July 2022 through June 2023) are half what they were in the previous fiscal year. The total rent assistance budget for this year is $52.6 million.
Multnomah County is collaborating with more than 40 community-based partners to leverage the limited rent assistance resources available and aim to prevent as many evictions as possible, Delgado said.
Commissioner Sharon Meieran said she appreciated “all the amazing outreach providers who are showing up at those doorsteps and being that beacon of hope in people’s lives.”
As of Oct. 26, $9.7 million have been committed to 2,310 households. Of those served, 74.6% of them identified as Black, Indigenous, or people of color.
“This is inspiring in the sense we see how the work really makes a difference,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said. “And we see what the need is.”
Outreach teams going door to door to prevent evictions
Fasseh Abdullahi, an eviction prevention outreach worker with Bienestar, is among those helping people with eviction notices. He said he comes across numerous people daily who are unaware of the resources keeping people housed.
Now that the “Safe Harbor” protections have expired, which protected renters from nonpayment eviction, Abdullahi said his team has seen evictions move a lot faster. In response to the changing landscape, a new rapid response team is working to process rental assistance in a matter of days.
Abdullahi and his team of outreach workers go to the Multnomah County Courthouse four days a week and conduct home visits five days a week to offer assistance to people who are being evicted in hopes of keeping them in their homes. To date, they have made 801 home visits to 591 Multnomah County households who had court cases filed against them for nonpayment of rent.
“We come across a lot of people shocked and surprised that this kind of service is available for them,” Abdullahi said. “We come across a lot of people who were not knowledgeable about where to go and where to search about this kind of service.”
Lesley Caldaron, who immigrated to the United States from Honduras in 1989, has lived in Portland since 2006. She’s lived in the Clara Vista Apartments in the Cully neighborhood that entire time. Bienestar is located just across the street from her apartment.
Caldaron was already on a fixed income. Then, last year, she contracted COVID-19 and wound up hospitalized. The next thing she knew, she owed back rent and was at serious risk of losing her housing.
Fortunately, Caldaron was a regular at Bienestar and a frequent visitor of their weekly “Mercado” food exchange. Based on her close relationship with Bienestar, an outreach worker informed her about rent assistance. After connecting with Caldaron, the outreach worker helped her access the rent she owed. They also provided assistance with utilities and food assistance. She said she can’t imagine what she would do without Bienestar.
“I was very happy and relieved that someone had reached out to me and offered to help me with the rent that I owed,” she said. “Just hearing from Bienestar, that they were willing to help me, brought me back to life.”
Current evictions just “the tip of the iceberg”
Despite Multnomah County’s success at preventing thousands of evictions, the current situation is just “the tip of the iceberg,” said Becky Straus, a managing attorney at the Oregon Law Center who co-runs its Eviction Defense Project. One estimate from the University of Washington found that about five times the number of people in eviction court are displaced outside of eviction court.
Today, Multnomah County is well over pre-pandemic levels of eviction filings. That’s attributed to numerous causes, including the nonpayment of rent grace period that expired in March 2022 and the end of Safe Harbor protections in July 2022.
“Landlords are no longer required to accept money,” Straus said. “And we are finding a good amount of our cases are just coming up against a standstill where landlords are refusing to accept money. We are there and ready to write a check.”
Last month, there were 752 case filings for eviction due to nonpayment of rent. Census Pulse Data also shows that, currently, nearly one in five Multnomah County renters are not caught up on rent. That translates to about $118 million in unmet need.
“The other thing we have to mention is also how much it costs just to pay rent right now in Portland,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said. “We have the 14th-most expensive city in the nation in terms of rent for a one- or two-bedroom apartment.”
The County’s Office of Government Relations continues to advocate for more funding and policy changes at the state level, too. Currently, legislators are looking at possible paths forward. The County remains focused on advocating for a fairer system for those unable to afford rent.
“The information shared today really points strongly to: the problem isn’t solved and that this is still a very big issue,” said Jeston Black, the County’s Government Relations director.
“We know the need for rent assistance still exists and is quite high,” said Yesenia Delgado, a family system program specialist with the Joint Office. “And what’s unfortunate is tenants don’t have the protections they used to. And, of course, as we all know, once someone is evicted, it’s harder to find them a new place to be in."