On a crisp October afternoon, Elizabeth Cortez rides through the Cully neighborhood in the backseat of a white Multnomah County car. On her cellphone are 10 pins in a Google Map—the addresses of renters she hopes to save from eviction today.
She and two co-workers pull the car into an auto body shop parking lot and walk up to a drab gray ground-floor apartment. Outside, trash bags bulge. A cluster of mushrooms grows from bark chips outside the apartment.
Cortez peeks through the window curtains. Her colleague Fasseh Abdullahi raps on the door gently. “I don’t want to get mistaken for cops,” he says.
Living in the apartment is a woman who has been legally protected from paying rent for much of the past 19 months. Her eviction court date is in five days. If they don’t find her today, she could be on the street by the end of the month.
Since the pandemic descended in April 2020, Multnomah County’s nonpayment eviction courts have been in a freeze, except for tenants who didn’t fill out financial hardship forms. Those gears resumed grinding July 1, when a statewide eviction moratorium ended. Now a team of four people is what stands between some of the tenants least able to pay rent and a judge’s order sending them to the street.
The only trick? Finding them.
Many of the 20 doors the team knocks on every day go unopened. Team members leave notes and record voicemails on building call boxes. They knock up to five times, switching up the time of day in case the tenant is at work. They call relatives. They’ll spend weeks trying to contact someone.
On this day, Abdullahi writes a note and tucks it in the door: “Hello, please call us about rental assistance.”
The team is from Bienestar de la Familia, a county program that offers resources primarily to Latinx residents. The team will visit six more households this afternoon. Only one person will answer, and that’s because she called Abdullahi after he’d left a flyer on her door. Her name is Estefany and she wears Puma slides. She’s 20 and lost her job at the Columbia Sportswear warehouse in early October. She didn’t have a plan if she was evicted.
Oregon’s tenant protections are in chaos as rent once again comes due. State assistance checks have not reached many of the tenants who dutifully applied 90 days ago. (Bienestar’s program is separate from the state’s and checks come more swiftly.) Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is in discussions about calling another special session of the Oregon Legislature to potentially extend the grace period for those who’ve applied for assistance.
Over the past three months, 465 county residents have faced evictions filed by their landlords. That’s just the tip of the eviction iceberg, however: Many move after getting a termination notice and prior to a court filing to avoid having an eviction on their record.
But some of the people who most need help are the ones who have done the least to help themselves—tenants who haven’t applied for assistance.
That’s where the county’s eviction prevention team comes in. Out of 241 referrals received since the end of July, the team’s been able to make sure 124 of them got federal rent assistance dollars funneled to the county to keep them housed.
“A lot of clients we come in contact with have had their phones cut off, don’t have access to the internet, or there’s a language barrier,” says Cortez, who adds she’s encountered suspicion about government assistance. “They think there must be strings attached or something.”
Cortez isn’t in this work for thanks. In her telling, the county team is what stands between the end of legal protections and a societal catastrophe—thousands of people forced onto Portland sidewalks already packed with tents.
“I feel a lot of pressure, because we are that last resort for them,” Cortez says. Last week, she reached a single mother with a 3-year-old son who has autism. She cried when she realized why Cortez was there. “She said she’d been trying to apply online, and it was asking for all these documents, and she couldn’t figure it out. You could see how overwhelmed she was. It made it seem like my work really mattered.”
On a September morning, Cortez recognized a Spanish-speaking woman whose mobile home door she’d knocked on five times since the woman’s landlord filed for eviction. Cortez caught her at the last stop: the Multnomah County Courthouse.
Cortez helped her fill out the initial paperwork to get rent money from the county.
Inside the courtroom, as the judge worked through the list of eviction filings, the Spanish-speaking woman turned to Cortez, who was sitting at the back of the courtroom alongside her three colleagues. The woman couldn’t understand the judge, and the judge couldn’t understand her. Cortez isn’t allowed to help translate in the courtroom. She fidgeted, hoping the judge would be understanding.
Language barriers can be a problem for tenants facing eviction. (Team member Abdullahi speaks Somali, the other three speak Spanish. Two case managers back at the office speak Mai-Mai and Arabic.)
If tenants don’t show up at the courthouse for their first appearance, the team has little recourse to help them. A default judgment is made, ruling in favor of the landlord. From there, tenants typically have four days to leave their dwelling before the landlord can involve law enforcement.
The five tenants who didn’t show up are out of luck. But the Spanish-speaking woman? She was able to communicate with Judge Benjamin Johnston through a translator that her paperwork was in order. She’ll stay in her home.
Some critics say the county’s efforts arrived too little too late, in early August.
Portland Tenants United has been making similar door-to-door visits since late July, when the federal moratorium ended. PTU knocked on 120 doors during a single weekend in September.
Alli Sayre is an organizer with PTU. She says the county should’ve started its efforts long before the tenants’ union did.
“We feel like there’s a lot the county could have done and didn’t,” Sayre says. “The fact is that a lot of people have gotten evicted, so obviously more should have been done.”
The county contends it was thorough in its efforts: It sent postcards to tenants’ homes, sent out text blasts, paid for Facebook ads, placed ads in culturally specific newspapers, and distributed flyers through county partners.
Becky Straus of the Oregon Law Center, which partners with the county to provide free legal aid to tenants, says: “The door knocking was a course correction. We think of the courthouse as the last stop, but some people weren’t even making it to the last stop.”
Rufus Bethea was one of the tenants the county reached in time.
He drives semi-trucks. He got behind on rent. The county team left a handwritten letter wedged in his door a week before his scheduled court appearance and helped him get assistance.
“That would’ve put me back on the streets,” Bethea tells WW. He was homeless for seven months in 2018 before finding housing. “Especially to think of what I’d already went through, it was a crushing thought.”
The key, the team says, is sheer persistence. Many tenants answer on the fifth knock, or call one of the team members just a day before their court hearing.
The woman the team was searching for in mid-October, with the mushrooms outside her door, finally answered Abdullahi’s fifth knock on Oct. 18, just two days before her scheduled court date.
“She was so happy and relieved,” Abdullahi says. “We were able to get ahold of her right before she went to bed.”