Zina Earhart, 42, was living paycheck to paycheck when she was hit by series of unexpected financial blows: a stolen check, a broken-down car, and a late fee from her landlord.
To get back on track, she found a local nonprofit—Community Action of Washington County—willing to help pay her $925-a-month rent in August. That way, she could stay in the one-bedroom apartment in Beaverton where she lives with her 7-year-old daughter. (Earhart works as a caretaker for the elderly.)
"I finally reached out for help," she says. "I was feeling pretty desperate. I have been losing my hair. I've lost 20 pounds."
When Earhart tried to contact her landlord to arrange payment, she received no response—except an eviction notice.
Some advocates say what Earhart experienced may be increasingly common in the Portland area: landlords refusing to accept rental assistance that local governments and nonprofits provide to renters experiencing a temporary financial emergency.
It also may be illegal.
In 2014, Oregon prohibited landlords from not accepting federal rent assistance in the form of Section 8 vouchers. Some argue the law may also apply when tenants get emergency assistance from local agencies.
"It seems like the law is broad enough that it covers situations mid-tenancy," says Portland lawyer Troy Pickard. "I think the landlord is putting themselves at risk."
Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-North Portland), who championed the bill, agrees that was the intent of the legislation.
"The intent of the law was to protect applicants and tenants from being discriminated against solely on the basis of federal, state or local housing assistance as a source of income," Kotek tells WW. "Discrimination is discrimination, regardless of when it occurred during a tenancy."
As Multnomah County and Portland City Hall invest in preventing people from becoming homeless, governments increasingly use rental assistance: paying people's rent for a few months to keep them in their market-rate apartments.
It's far less expensive than paying for subsidized housing—and local officials say it can keep people from ending up on the streets. Between 2014 and 2017, the amount spent by the county and city to prevent people from losing their homes grew 25 percent, from $3.1 million to $3.9 million in short-term rent assistance.
In Multnomah County, the housing authority Home Forward is in charge of distributing city and county funding to 22 nonprofits that distribute rent assistance to people in danger of losing their housing.
The number of landlords turning down the assistance appears to be small, but some say it may be increasing.
"It's infuriating," says Eryn Byram, executive director of Labor's Community Service Agency, a nonprofit serving working families and funded with donations from labor unions. She has had three such cases this year and none before that.
"It may be growing. The fact they're refusing third-party checks shows their intent not to serve lower-income people."
Evidence of the trend is anecdotal, and Pickard, the lawyer, says he's seen the opposite: cases in the past in which landlords resisted taking such money, but none in the past few years.
It's not common for landlords to turn down rental assistance checks, say nonprofits. But it creates a dire circumstance for renters who are desperately trying to hold onto a home when it does happen.
Portland Tenants United, a leading advocacy group for renters, says the law should be clarified to require landlords to accept emergency rent assistance.
"The headlines about our homelessness crisis are unrelenting, and every day in eviction court we see why: The rent is too high and very few Portland renters can keep up, especially when an unbudgeted life event occurs," says PTU co-chair Margot Black. "We know short-term rental assistance is the No. 1 way to prevent evictions, so it's unconscionable to make it so hard for tenants to find and get approved for it, and should be criminal for landlords to then refuse to accept it."
Earhart will defend herself against eviction in Washington County Circuit Court this week. She has considered resorting to a novel argument: "discrimination based on source of income."
But she is unlikely to win on this count for technical reasons. The nonprofit would not release a check without paperwork from the landlord, which means it's harder to argue the landlord formally turned it down.
To compound Earhart's problems, the nonprofit still hasn't cut her a check. The nonprofit stopped communicating with her, but she still needs the money to challenge her eviction in court.
An attorney for the Beaverton landlord, Russell Hosner LLC, did not return a call from WW seeking comment.
This isn't the only such case.
Stephanie Casey Hansen, 46, is a mother of two who works as a harvest technician for a cannabis company. This summer, she had health issues and trouble making her typical salary, thanks to the cannabis industry struggling with the glut in the market.
"June became a perfect storm of events," she says. "My pay dropped by a quarter."
She realized she couldn't pay the rent for her apartment in the Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood. But a Portland Public Schools counselor found Hansen and her kids rent assistance at the end of last year, which would cover the $1,100 in rent for their apartment.
"I thought, 'My prayers are answered,'" she says. "There's typically no assistance to be had."
But her landlord, like Earhart's, never responded, in this case to receiving a request for a tax ID number. (She says her landlord always wanted rent in cash.) Attorney Frank Wall confirms the landlord wasn't interested in accepting the rental assistance.
Hansen ultimately agreed in July to move out of her place to avoid an eviction and in with a friend—where they have a nice place to live but don't have their own bedrooms.
If more landlords are rejecting rent assistance, that's because more tenants than ever are turning to it. Carmen Rubio, who runs the Latino Network and is running for City Council, says it's the top need the nonprofit's clients have.
And demand is outstripping supply.
Jessica, a Portland mother of two who didn't want her name used out of embarrassment for her circumstances, isn't sure how to pay her September rent.
Black has set up an online fundraiser for her and Earhart as a last-ditch effort. "I hate raising ransom money for landlords," Black says, "but I hate single moms becoming homeless even more."
Jessica tried four nonprofits unsuccessfully. She's a student and may be able to take out more loans at the end of the month, but she doesn't have a plan for how to make it to month's end.
"Everyone I know is struggling," she says. "This month, if I don't make rent, I'm going to plead with the judge."