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'Rent cliff' looms for some struggling to pay bills during pandemic

With a statewide eviction moratorium ending this fall, Jackson County has teamed up with United Way to distribute $500,000 to keep struggling households from tumbling off a rent cliff.

Jackson County is fronting the money and will seek reimbursement through federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Each individual or household can qualify for up to $1,000 to help pay for rent, utilities, car repairs, child care and other necessities. People must show documentation that they’ve either lost income during the pandemic or face added expenses, such as child care. Money will be paid directly to landlords or service providers.

The Oregon Legislature passed an eviction moratorium that extends through Sept. 30. People can’t be evicted during that time for not paying rent.

Community partners are working together to prevent a wave of evictions that could start this fall.

“There’s a potential cliff people could fall off,” said Dee Anne Everson, executive director of United Way of Jackson County.

People can be evicted if they don’t pay rent for the month of October and following months.

If they missed rent payments from April through September, they have until March 31, 2021, to catch up — after which they could be evicted.

As Oregon businesses closed or reduced operations to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus this spring, the state’s unemployment rate skyrocketed. The Oregon Employment Department hasn’t been able to keep up with the numbers of people filing unemployment claims, leading to long delays in getting unemployment checks for many.

Everson said the lack of affordable housing in the Rogue Valley has long been a problem. The added financial strain of the pandemic has hit many households hard.

United Way previously raised and distributed $387,000 to help people during the pandemic. Jackson County contributed $50,000 toward that effort.

United Way helped 1,104 families and 42 nonprofit groups with that money, but it’s now been exhausted, Everson said.

She said she’s grateful to the county government for the help it is extending for local residents.

Everson said keeping people housed is much less expensive to society than dealing with the host of problems triggered by eviction and homelessness. It could also help the economy rebound more quickly from the current recession.

“If we can keep people housed, we have a much better chance of creating a V-shaped recovery,” Everson said.

The United Way, property managers, landlords, a tenant advocacy group, state Rep. Pam Marsh, Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Southern Oregon and other local groups are working together on the rental housing issue.

Paying the bills

Despite unprecedented unemployment and the eviction moratorium, the majority of renters are continuing to pay the rent.

CPM Real Estate Services, Inc., a manager of residential and commercial rentals for small to large owners, has seen collections drop by almost 3%, said Dave Wright, president and co-owner of the business.

That drop-off represents about $300,000, he said.

Wright said the downturn in rent payments is not as large as he expected when the Oregon Legislature passed the eviction moratorium.

“I’m encouraged by the people doing everything they can to stay current. It’s very heartening. Most people don’t want to get down the road and have a large balance that they have to deal with or can’t deal with. The majority of people are doing everything they can to stay current,” he said. “I’m hoping by the end of September, things will be more normal — but who knows?”

Wright said some tenants aren’t able to pay their full rent each month, but they’ve reached out with promises to pay the remaining rent later. Only a small percentage of people are missing payments and not communicating with landlords and property managers.

Wright said many of the smaller landlords in the area rely on their rentals for retirement income or they have rental housing as their business. Missed rent payments hurt both tenants and property owners.

“From the beginning, we’ve said we’re all in this together. Nobody’s alone. The landlords and the tenants are all in this together,” Wright said. “Hopefully there is communication. We like to have our residents, if they’re not able to pay, reach out to us so they don’t have a big balance at the end of this. We want to keep people in their houses. That’s everyone’s goal right now.”

Wright said he hopes tenants who are struggling will reach out for help from United Way and other local groups offering aid during the pandemic.

At the Housing Authority of Jackson County, staff members are seeing more people struggling to pay the rent.

Rent payments have fallen by up to 10% each month since the pandemic hit Oregon, said Jason Elzy, executive director for the Housing Authority.

He declined to give a dollar figure for the losses.

Some people in Housing Authority units pay a flat rate per month, while others have rent payments pegged to their incomes, he said.

Elzy said people are facing a variety of problems, from delays in getting unemployment checks to additional child care expenses. Circumstances are unique for each household.

He said it’s not in anyone’s interest to see mass evictions.

“Evictions are expensive for both residents and landlords,” he said. “There’s usually a way to accommodate people and work out a repayment plan. Our No. 1 goal is to resolve those issues and save their tenancy. The last thing we want to see is tenants being evicted due to the pandemic.”

Elzy said property owners face eviction court costs, expenses to get a rental ready for a new tenant, lost income when a rental sits empty and other costs when someone is evicted.

The Southern Oregon Rental Owners Association includes about 550 rental owners, property managers and others with 17,000 properties in Jackson and Josephine counties.

Members have reported delinquent rent totaling $145,000 from April through July, said Cliff, a landlord, SOROA member and SOROA mentor who asked that his last name not be used.

He asked the 550 members of the group about their experiences with rent during the pandemic. Of 45 who responded, 21 said they’d experienced delinquent rent while 24 reported no delinquencies.

Some landlords have tapped into their savings, opened lines of credit, been unable to pay their mortgages or fallen behind on other bills. Although their cash flow is down, some landlords are spending more on maintenance because people are home more, leading to wear and tear on housing.

Cliff said more people could struggle to pay the rent now that a federal unemployment bonus of $600 per week ended July 31.

“I suspect more people will be in arrears if that’s not renewed,” he said.

Democrats in Congress want to continue the $600 weekly payments, but Republicans want to reduce the benefit, saying it’s creating a disincentive for people to go back to work.

About two-thirds of the unemployed are receiving more than they earned at their former jobs with the combination of state unemployment and the federal bonus, according to nationwide research.

Cliff said the bonus plus federal stimulus payments in the wake of COVID-19 have helped soften the financial blow to renters and landlords.

“If Congress does not act soon, landlords and tenants could be facing a precipice in the coming months,” he said.

Cliff said he doesn’t personally favor Oregon’s eviction moratorium, but it appears that only a fraction of a percent of renters are taking advantage of the moratorium and not paying when they actually do have the money.

Cliff said the Democrat-controlled Oregon Legislature has spent several years passing tenant-friendly regulations that burden landlords and reduce their ability to be flexible.

He’s advising property owners not to slash the rent for their tenants during the pandemic. If a landlord cut the rent by half, for example, it could take five years to lift the rent back to its current level.

Oregon only allows landlords to raise the rent once a year, and the allowable increase this year is 9.9%. The annual increase varies based on inflation, Cliff said.

Landlords can get hit with financial penalties if they don’t understand the eviction moratorium regulations. They could be forced to pay a penalty equal to three months’ rent if they try to evict someone for not paying rent accrued between April 1 and Sept. 30 before the payment grace period ends March 31, 2021, according to state regulations.

Cliff urged tenants to contact their landlords if they run into financial trouble. And although it might seem embarrassing, he said struggling tenants should reach out to local organizations offering rent aid.

The hardest hit

Statewide, low-income workers appear to be struggling the most to pay their rent, said Jesse Sharpe, Southern Oregon regional organizer for the advocacy group Community Alliance of Tenants.

The group surveyed 455 of its members, who are primarily low income. About 150 said they’ve fallen behind on their rent, although the problem appears to be less severe in the Medford area, Sharpe said.

Most of those who’ve fallen behind said they won’t be able to pay all their rent by October, he said.

“It seems to be an extremely serious problem. If things continue as they are, we’ll be in a very difficult situation come October,” he said.

Only four people who were surveyed by the Community Alliance of Tenants said they have the ability to pay rent but are intentionally not paying during the eviction moratorium, Sharpe said.

“People are scraping up everything they have to pay the rent,” he said.

More people reported cutting back on food and medication than on rent, Sharpe said.

Although the federal government responded to the pandemic with the weekly unemployment bonus and Paycheck Protection Program funding to help businesses keep workers on the job, some people are falling through the cracks.

One woman rented a six-bedroom home to open a care facility. Then COVID-19 hit the area and she couldn’t take in clients, Sharpe said.

“Suddenly she couldn’t make money, but she didn’t have the tax documents to get relief because it was a brand new business,” he said.

Some people have had long waits to get unemployment checks. Others, such as musicians and performers, work nontraditional jobs that make it hard to qualify, Sharpe said.

Some Southern Oregon workers not only lost their jobs, they lost access to company housing, he said.

The Community Alliance of Tenants is advocating for a form of rent forgiveness under which tenants would have their unpaid rent covered by the state or federal government. Sharpe concedes it’s a long shot given Oregon’s pandemic-induced budget shortfall, but he said local, state and federal governments will end up paying for problems triggered by homelessness if people get evicted.

Rep. Pam Marsh, who represents part of Southern Oregon in the state Legislature, said she hasn’t heard legislators talking about rent forgiveness.

She said programs like the rent assistance offered through United Way of Jackson County, coupled with the eviction moratorium, are the methods being used to help renters during the COVID-19 crisis.

Marsh urged those who need help paying the rent to apply for aid through local groups like United Way, ACCESS and St. Vincent de Paul. Money is flowing to those groups from a variety of sources, including local, state and federal funding and charitable giving.

“With the eviction moratorium ending, people will have to start paying rent on Oct. 1. We’ve inadvertently created a big cliff for people,” she said. “We want to communicate the information on rent subsidies so people get help as soon as possible. We don’t want to provide relief, people don’t know about it, and then in the autumn months we see mass evictions. We want to keep landlords and tenants as stable as possible.”

To apply for help from United Way, see unitedwayofjacksoncounty.org/covid-19-fund.

For rent help through ACCESS, call the organization’s COVID-19 rent assistance line at 541-414-0308 or see accesshelps.org/rentalassistance.

For energy assistance through ACCESS, call 541-779-9020 or see accesshelps.org/energy-assistance.

To reach St. Vincent de Paul, call 541-772-3828 or see stvincentdepaulmedford.info. The organization may have a limited ability to respond because of a recent closure due to a volunteer testing positive for COVID-19.

Call 211 or go to 211info.org for information on a range of community resources, including housing help, child care, food, health care and utility bill assistance.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneLow-income housing apartments on Grape Street in Medford.