With talks between Democrats and the White house having collapsed, lawmakers have been unable and unwilling to extend the national eviction moratorium, supplemental unemployment relief, and CARES Act money that has helped families scrape by through the pandemic and recession. As Portland, the biggest city in Oregon, heads towards its third month of nightly protests against racist police brutality, its residents stand on the brink of a devastating eviction crisis.
Even before the pandemic hit, Portland was one of the most rent-burdened cities in the United States, with almost half of renters spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. While Oregon has an eviction moratorium in place until the end of September, its residents who decide to take advantage of it have only until March 2021 to pay back all past-due rent. At the end of next month, all tenants are expected to pay rent or face eviction.
The moratorium is merely a bandaid for the larger problem, given that many Portlanders cannot afford their rent following mass layoffs and unemployment caused by the pandemic situation, and do not know how soon they will be able to get back to work. As calculated in June, Oregon’s unemployment rate was a staggering 11.2 percent, while the 1.43 million unemployment claims the week of July 19 are up from the earlier 1.3 million the week of July 5. The Oregon Housing Alliance has pointed to recent research showing that one in five renters in Oregon don’t feel confident they will be able to pay next month’s rent. Additionally, Portlanders who use the moratorium will need to be employed soon to save up for the cumulative check to send their landlords come March, something that will be extremely difficult in the current employment market.
Though the city announced that it will be using $29 million in combined funds to provide rent assistance to around 4,300 households, local leaders and activists say that the number of those unable to pay rent in the area in a given month exceeds 21,000. This is an astonishing discrepancy between the few resources that are available and the sheer number of financially besieged families. Portlanders can’t rely on federal aid to bail them out either: the Senate has left Washington, D.C. until September without agreeing on a coronavirus relief bill.
In 2017, Portland was named the fourth fastest gentrifying city in the United States, based on the drastic rate of displacement of people of color due to rising costs of housing and real estate racism. It has also been well-documented that the COVID pandemic infections fall disproportionately along class and racial lines. A local Portland newspaper noted that in the area east of 82nd Street, whose residents are poorer and more diverse, infections were far more rampant. Without rent cancellations and other sweeping relief measures, Portlanders in poorer neighborhoods such as these are at the risk of eviction and homelessness at a time when they are already at an increased risk for contracting the virus.
Oregon, especially Portland, already are home to a disproportionately large population of unhoused and unsheltered people. Sweeps of homeless encampments, the city’s typical way of dealing with its horrific housing crisis, are temporarily halted amidst the crisis. However, as businesses begin to reopen under Governor Brown’s orders, sweeps are likely to begin anew and with increased fervor. A 2019 report shows that while Oregon’s population represents only 1.3 percent of the total United States population, its homeless population represents 2.6 percent of the total homeless population. The factors pointed to in this report are the deadly convergence of an inadequate housing supply and rising rents, which leave tens of thousands at risk of eviction and homelessness. Now a third factor has entered into the equation: a deadly pandemic and financial crisis, which is exacerbates the suffering even further, threatening to plunge already struggling people into further danger.
As the pressure doubles down on tenants with the ending of state and federal benefits with only vague and unlikely promises of new relief, Portlanders are presented with the dual problem of facing evictions during a pandemic and an ineffective local and national government that has been all too happy to teargas the nightly anti-racism protests. They are unsafe both in the homes they risk to lose to predatory landlords, as well as in the street where they daily confront the violent arm of the state. These problems are not unrelated, in fact they rely intimately upon one another. The police exists to protect the private property of the elite, including prized real estate and gated neighborhoods, which corporate landlords and banks work hard to keep “undesired” populations out of.
What is happening in Portland is of course not an isolated phenomenon, and people around the country are standing up to proclaim their discontent. Activists have already staged actions around the country in 40 cities including Portland to “Cancel the Rents and End Racist Policing.” As the U.S. dives headfirst into another financial crisis caused by the instability of capitalism and its ever-mounting crises and contradictions, we must stand up together, united by our shared struggle.