Oregon Tenant Advocates Report Uptick In Landlord Harassment During Eviction Ban
During the statewide eviction moratorium, landlords cannot evict a tenant for not paying rent. Some tenant advocates say this has resulted in increased reports of tenant harassment.
It has become increasingly clear to Crispin Rosenkranz that he is no longer a welcomed tenant in his pale yellow Northeast Portland rental.
But with an eviction moratorium protecting renters until January, his landlord, who is looking to sell the property on Northeast Prescott, said she can’t yet force him out. Instead, Rosenkranz claims, ever since he rejected her August offer to voluntarily move out in exchange for $500, she has resorted to harassment, hoping if she makes his stay strenuous enough, he’ll decide to leave on his own.
On Wednesday evening, after months of stiff exchanges with his landlord, Rosenkranz said the alleged informal eviction attempt became a family affair when his landlord’s daughter arrived on his doorstep. He said she called him a squatter and demanded he find another home. She warned that he should expect her to “keep knocking every day.”
A little over an hour later, Rosenkranz said she turned off the circuit breaker. He turned it back on. She turned it off again.
“It’s this attitude, like ‘just go move’ Okay, well go where?” said Rosenkranz, 50, a freelance filmmaker who was laid off from his job as a caterer for the Oregon Zoo in March and has since been paying his portion of the $1,650 rent with unemployment checks. “The pandemic has cut off my work, I don’t have a steady job — no place is going to want me moving in.”
By and large, Oregon’s eviction moratorium appears to be working as intended, holding off the flood of evictions that are expected to accompany the economic crisis as thousands of Oregonians lose their incomes amid the pandemic. But some tenant advocates say the bar on no-cause evictions has fueled a rise in tenant harassment, as landlords, unable to evict tenants formally through the courts, pressure tenants until they feel they have no choice but to move out.
“For the most part, landlords are respecting the moratorium now,” said Kim McCarty, the executive director of the Community Alliance of Tenants. “But there’s enough not respecting it and there are enough people who are confused about their future, that I can report from our organization that the phones are ringing off the hook. We cannot keep up with the demand.”
Advocates say hard numbers on reports of tenant harassment over time — either in Portland or statewide — don’t exist. Unlike some other major cities, Portland’s Housing Bureau does not track harassment reports nor does the Community Alliance of Tenants, which works with renters across the state.
But in a recent report on housing insecurity during the pandemic, the Community Alliance of Tenants and Portland State University captured a snapshot of how many tenants were facing harassment this July, three months after the state’s moratorium began. Out of 460 renters surveyed, 22% reported: “hostile, harassing, or threatening behavior from landlords or property managers.” That rate jumped to 32% for tenants who identified as BIPOC.
At a time when the government is pushing for residents to stay home, OPB spoke with seven tenants with backlogged rent who believed their landlords were taking extrajudicial steps to push them out the door. Cheryl Davis, 50, a housekeeper who lives in a 2-bedroom apartment in Parkrose, said her landlord sent her neighbor to her doorstep four times between July and September to hassle her for rent payments, refusing to leave until she shut the door. She eventually called the police.
In April, Sheila Branson, 53, fell behind on rent at her Troutdale home of eight years after her husband got sick and took a leave of absence at the nearby Amazon Fulfillment Center. Since then, the couple said their landlord announced plans to increase the rent by $150, refused to fix a dry rotting backdoor that allows cold air to permeate the home, and informed them they would be evicted on November 11 if they didn’t get rid of their dog of three years. The couple said they responded with documentation that the dog was a service animal. November 11 came and went and Branson said she’s not sure where the eviction stands.
“She’s just been hounding us, picking at us about stupid stuff to do anything that she can to try and get us legally evicted,” she said. “I get it. I understand. She’s got bills to pay.”
Since the pandemic, McCarty, the head of the Community Alliance of Tenants, said she’s noticed harassment during the pandemic play out in two ways. More landlords are writing up lease violations: dinging renters for infractions such as pets, loud noises, and long-term guests. In other cases, she said landlords are insisting on creating repayment plans with tenants to make up backlogged rent and threaten eviction if the tenant doesn’t follow the schedule — even though the moratorium does not require any rent repayment until Jan 1, the day after the rule’s set to expire.
When a tenant falls behind, she said some will leave, doubling up with others or falling into homelessness, rather than risk having an eviction stain their record.
“This is a way people are harassed out of their housing. They self-evict out of fear there will be some kind of court case and eviction,” she said. “They think it’s a better option to just leave.”
Troy Pickard, a tenant attorney in Portland, described a similar rise in reports: more landlords who appear to be nitpicking lease violations and pressuring tenants into leaving without explicitly evicting. But he said there’s not a lot he can do about many of these calls coming through to his firm.
“Very frequently, what I’m actually hearing from the tenants about landlord harassment is something that, sure the tenant might not like it, but it’s probably not anything that’s legally actionable,” he said.
Local renter advocacy group Portland Tenants United is trying to change that.
Inspired by similar legislation passed in the San Francisco Bay area, the group is pushing for City Hall to take up an ordinance that would explicitly define certain behavior as a form of landlord harassment — for example, badgering a tenant about rent payments, neglecting repairs, or threatening an eviction without legal standing. Landlords found to be in violation would face steep fines.
Lauren Everett, an organizer with Portland Tenants United, said the group felt it was getting some momentum with the offices of Commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Jo Ann Hardesty in the early spring. But she said the discussion derailed as attention shifted to creating and extending the eviction moratorium.
Half a year later, that’s where the attention remains. If the Governor calls for a special legislative session in December, Oregon lawmakers are expected to take up the issue of extending the eviction moratorium. One proposal under consideration would extend the moratorium through to July 2021 and create a fund to compensate landlords for lost rent.
Tenant advocates warn that if lawmakers don’t extend the moratorium, the state will see mass evictions and a dramatic spike in homelessness come January. But Pickard warned if lawmakers don’t also figure out a way to get landlords paid for months of missed rent, the harassment faced by vulnerable tenants may worsen.
“The more desperate the situation is, the more desperate measures landlords are going to employ,” he said. “If it does keep going on and we just keep telling tenants, ‘Hey, you don’t have to pay right now’ and landlords are stuck where they’re not getting money that they were relying on, they will get increasingly desperate.”
Jill Barnett, who owns Rosenkranz’s home, said she’s no longer pushing for her tenant to leave. She denied accusations that she’s trying to evict through extralegal means and said she didn’t know anything about the alleged incident involving her daughter. Barnett’s daughter did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
“There has been no harassment, period,” said Barnett. “I know his legal rights, and I know what I can do, and I know what I’m doing. I’m waiting until Oregon lifts the eviction mandate.”
That moratorium is now just over two weeks away from expiring — at which point Rosenkranz realizes he can’t stop the looming eviction. He said he’s not sure where he’ll go. Before landing on Northeast Prescott, he spent four months living with his parents, searching for a place he could afford. He questions how kindly landlords will look at a prospective tenant with no income and an eviction on their record.
“I can’t go back to sleeping on my parents’ floor.”
Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting