Four years before the pandemic began, Multnomah County Library selected Matthew Desmond’s nonfiction book Evicted as the 2017 title for their Everybody Reads program. As part of the program, extra copies of the book were available for people to share, local library branches hosted discussion groups and Desmond appeared at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall to deliver a talk on the eviction crisis and his research on the topic. As Director of Libraries Vailey Oehlke explained about the book’s selection, “Evicted is a wrenching and candid look into issues that are so visible in our own community.”
The pandemic brought the eviction crisis into even sharper focus. The prospect of millions of households losing their homes and potentially sleeping on the street, in their vehicles or in the already strained shelter system loomed as a public health emergency. “Doubling up” with friends and family was a dangerous option, at odds with the urgent need to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Unprecedented federal, state and local legislation limiting evictions soon followed nationwide. These “eviction moratoriums” had different rules and requirements and targeted different parts of the eviction processes, which sometimes created confusion for tenants facing eviction. Oregon Law Center staff attorneys Becky Straus and Emily Rena-Dozier started monitoring the court docket to see if tenants were using the Financial Hardship Declaration option to respond to eviction filings, as allowed by House Bill 4401. What they found was that many people were still losing their homes despite the protections available.
Straus and Rena-Dozier launched the Eviction Defense Project in early 2021, securing additional support from Metro’s supportive housing services fund in July 2021 when the first funding was released. This investment reflects two of the SHS fund’s strategies and priorities, as outlined in the measure voters approved in 2020.
The first is the strategy of helping people avoid homelessness by stabilizing them in their homes when they are facing eviction. A study on the connection between evictions and homelessness in New York City found people who experience eviction are 16% more likely to enter the shelter system in the first two years after their eviction case than people who don’t have an eviction on their record.
Preventing eviction both reduces the trauma experienced by the resident and saves taxpayer funds that would potentially be spent on homelessness services in the future. The three counties have used Metro SHS funds to help 9,446 people avoid eviction between July 2021 and December 2022.
The second is the measure's prioritization of racial equity. Evictions disproportionately impact Black and Latine women and children, which in turn fuels the over-representation of these communities in the portion of the community experiencing homelessness. This is directly connected to the legacy of systemic racism in housing, education, employment and the justice system, which has disadvantaged communities of color for generations.
A movement around a right to counsel for tenants facing eviction has gained momentum in recent years, based on promising results from programs across the United States. Before these programs existed, tenants facing eviction were rarely represented in court by an attorney. Landlords, on the other hand, often rely on attorneys to represent them. Access to legal counsel in eviction court leads to starkly different outcomes for tenants. A 2018 study that tracked eviction rulings in cases where the tenant was represented through a Legal Aid program in Ohio found that courts ruled in favor of the landlord in 54% of the cases where the tenant was not represented, versus 1% of cases when they were.
Programs that provide low-income tenants with legal counsel often pair it with access to rent assistance, which is critical to enable them to either remain in their home or secure more time to move out. Multnomah County spent over $18 million on short-term rent assistance and legal services in the first twelve months of the SHS fund.
Sondra: “people naturally gravitated to me to help them”
Sondra Cozart grew up in the Albina neighborhood of inner Northeast Portland, attending the same local high school where her son is now a student. She decided to apply to law school at a friend’s urging. “People [were] always coming to me for assistance with one thing or another. Before I was a lawyer,” she remembered, “people naturally gravitated to me to help them out of situations.” This included asking Sondra to accompany them to their Section 8 hearings or write letters to organizations to request assistance.
Sondra originally wanted to be a public defender, and she worked in North Carolina for many years as a mitigation specialist. In this role she helped defendants in criminal cases tell their stories, providing insight into their mental health and other factors relevant to their case. After a while, this work took a toll on Sondra, and when she decided to move back to Oregon to support family in 2021, she applied for a position with the newly formed Eviction Defense Project.
In recent months, following the expiration of pandemic protections, she’s seen a significant increase in evictions for non-payment of rent. “When the pandemic hit, the low-income population felt the impact at a disproportionate rate, as they were already vulnerable,” she explained, “And I think a lot of those people still have not recovered from that.”
These days, about 92% of evictions filed in Multnomah County court are for non-payment evictions. Evictions that are not for non-payment are mostly “for-cause” evictions, which means the landlord has alleged that the resident has violated part of their lease terms. Oregon Law Center data show that these non-payment cases have more than doubled since the pandemic eviction protections were in-place.
According to Evicted In Oregon – a Portland State University research project - eviction levels statewide were lower before pandemic than they are today, with the 1,656 eviction cases filed in January 2020, compared to 2,324 in January 2023. With the surge in demand for eviction defense services and limited capacity, Sondra and her team are having to triage calls and decide which ones to take, based on the strength of the case.
Tenants facing non-payment evictions typically need rent assistance in addition to legal help. Although these funds are available, the process of calling and applying for them via the various nonprofits that distribute them can be overwhelming for someone in a crisis. Sondra tries to connect directly with the organizations on clients’ behalf. Having the ability to pay rent owed and in the future is a crucial piece of negotiating an agreement with a landlord in order to avoid homelessness – even if the tenant is only requesting a few more months so they have time find something else.
To complicate things, some landlords won’t accept rent assistance and they are not legally required to once the case makes it to eviction court. Sondra thinks some landlords want tenants who have been in their homes for three years or more to leave so they can raise the rent beyond what is allowed under state law. For those tenants who get behind on rent, “…There's a perverse, incentive for the landlord to say ‘no, I don't want to take their money’ and to tell them move on. Because then next tenant, they can price that unit higher and get more money.”
At the same time, landlords who are negotiating in good faith may benefit from their tenant having legal representation. “Most attorneys want attorneys on the other side,” Sondra explained. Having an attorney to help the tenant understand the law – including what a stipulated agreement is – can help them maintain their side of the agreement. It can also avoid unnecessarily going to trial: With the high cost of private attorney fees, making an agreement instead of going to trial can result in significant savings for the landlord. In addition, when Sondra helps her clients find rent assistance that means they will be able to meet their end of the agreement in a non-payment case.
Sondra estimates that probably all her clients would be houseless without legal representation. “We deal with a low-income population of people,” she said. “Their families are low-income and they don't have a family home to go to their house. So if they're not able to do it for themselves, they're on the street.”
Debra: “I really thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown”
Debra had lived in her home for about three years without any issues, until the fourplex building was sold. “Right from the beginning, it was a problem,” she explained. It started when a neighbor saw the landlord standing outside and looking into Debra’s apartment through the window, which would become a pattern.
He would also walk into her apartment without asking, which violates state landlord tenant law around giving twenty-four-hour notice before entering a tenant’s home. More troubling, he would invade Debra’s personal space, putting his hand on her shoulder as he walked in. New rules started to be imposed, such as not being allowed to have anything on her back patio. Debra felt she was being harassed.
Things escalated when Debra broke her hip on the third day of a new job. While she was in the hospital, she arranged for her son to come take care of her when she returned home. Instead, the landlord served her with a for-cause eviction notice for an unauthorized occupant and other alleged lease violations.
Debra was shocked – she’s sixty-eight years old and had never received notice of a lease violation before. “I've always been good about paying my rent…always got my deposits back. I've never had a problem with the landlord ever until now.” The building is currently for sale and Debra wonders if the landlord wanted her to leave so he could flip it. She was also the only Section 8 program participant of the building’s four households.
Everything changed when an outreach worker called Debra and told her about the Eviction Defense Project. Once she was connected with Sondra she found she had an ally. “I really thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown at first,” she remembered. “Sondra talking to me and calming me down and knowing what to do…she was amazing.
Ultimately, Debra was so uncomfortable in her home due to the landlord’s harassment she decided to find another place to live. But she needed time to move and she also didn’t want an eviction on her record. Sondra was able to negotiate an agreement out of court that gave Debra two months to move and avoid the eviction.
In addition to legal counsel, the emotional support Sondra provided during this stressful time was critical. “I could call her at any time,” Debra said, “and if she was busy, she would call me right back. She really helped me a lot mentally because I don't think I could have made it. I never went through anything so frustrating.”
LaToya: “I would be out on the streets right now”
LaToya had been living in her townhouse – which she shares with two of her adult children and her daughter’s young kids - for about four years when she received a for-cause eviction notice. It cited a conflict with a neighbor four months prior and gave her and her family only three days to pack their things and leave.
“They didn't even come to me about the incident till like four months later,” LaToya explained. “And they didn't even say anything to me. They just posted a note on my door telling me that…they're evicting me and they want me out.” LaToya contacted the management company and tried to share her side of the story but was told to talk to their lawyer. LaToya’s request for the security camera footage of the incident was denied.
LaToya called 211 and was directed to the Eviction Defense Project, where Sondra agreed to represent her. Typically, the attorney representing the tenant will try to negotiate an agreement with the landlord or their representative that either allows the tenant more time to move out or allows them to remain in their home. When each party is represented by an attorney the case usually doesn’t go to trial. But when Sondra contacted the management to discuss working out a deal to let LaToya and her family stay in their home for 60 more days, they made it clear they were not open to that compromise.
Sondra and LaToya requested a trial to state their case before a judge, and the day before the trial, the landlord decided to negotiate an agreement. Instead of having to move out, LaToya was asked not to have any aggressive contact with the neighbor for at least six months, which she happily agreed to.
“Throughout the whole process Sondra was so helpful. She stayed in contact with me even afterwards,” LaToya remembered, “to make sure that, you know, everything is going good.”
Part of the agreement Sondra negotiated included a promise that in the future, management will investigate both sides of any conflicts, including reviewing security camera footage and taking witness statements.
A year later, LaToya and her family still live in their home. “I'm so glad [I met Sondra] because, like, if it would have been me by myself, I would be out on the streets right now - literally out on the streets with like, nowhere to go at all. Like, I have no family at all. So me and my kids would just be stuck.”
Toward a more equitable future
With the escalation in eviction filings and rising need, Sondra hopes to see an expansion of the program, paired with more rent assistance and more infrastructure to distribute it.
“I would like to see our program – EDP – become a permanent program to be able to assist with the need in the Portland area and across the state,” she said. “If there is an attorney on the case, the tenant is in a much better position to defend their case. Or even if they have to vacate, they get more time by having an attorney for the case.”
Sondra would also like to see more affordable housing in Portland, explaining that regular working people aren’t able to keep up with the cost of housing and high rents are pricing them out of the area. She also hopes the legislation currently under consideration in Salem to reform the eviction process moves forward. Specifically, HB 2001, which would give tenants more time to respond or find rent assistance when served with a non-payment eviction.
“I was very amazed that someone was so compassionate and so caring,” said Debra, reflecting on her experience working with Sondra. “You could tell with Sondra, this is just not a job for her – she really has a passion and she really cares about people and what is right and what is wrong. There's not a lot of that these days.”