Oregon Law Center’s Eviction Defense Project protects tenants by interrupting the eviction process.
United Way of the Columbia-Willamette ended 2021 with a $200,000 investment in the Eviction Defense Program, with the hopes of building resiliency and renters’ rights through the Oregon Law Center. These funds help expand Oregon Law Center’s capacity to recruit lawyers who reflect the communities they serve, offer Black, Indigenous and People of Color access to multilingual eviction defense and provide financial assistance to renters in arrears. But in the face of growing instability, a precipitous housing market and exploitative landlords and rental agencies, these funds don’t go far enough. We’re facing a crisis of housing instability that is compounded by the pandemic and disproportionately affecting the BIPOC community. As we emerge from the uncertainty of the past few years, Oregon Law Center is looking to build a more resilient defense system for renters in our region.
“The pandemic and the resulting economic downturn are hitting low-income and BIPOC families the hardest, many of whom were already disproportionately rent-burdened in the first place,” said Becky Straus, Managing Attorney of Oregon Law Center’s newly established Eviction Defense Project. “This new support from United Way will boost our capacity to reach low-income tenants who are facing eviction and to better serve those who are struggling the most with housing instability.”
Straus and her team of legal experts have been showing up for renters facing eviction in more ways than one. Simply the act of being in the courtroom alongside renters has surprised many, she says. While landlords and rental agencies often have the benefit of a lawyer to work with them in situations like this, it’s rare for a renter to come to their court date with a lawyer – but Straus says she and her team have started changing the game.
A podcast from Understanding Homelessness in which Straus discusses illegal evictions, the need for representation in an unjust system and the Eviction Defense Project's work to help all those who need it.
“For a long time, landlords have been able to easily expedite an eviction against someone who doesn’t know what’s happening,” Straus said. “Now it’s more and more expected for a tenant to show up with a lawyer which immediately makes landlords rethink their approach. A very common emotion as we ramp up our capacity and get more lawyers on the sides of renters is surprise. Surprise from judges and from landlords that tenants are being represented.”
Straus hopes that surprise can be translated into a shift in the mindset around how to deal with landlord/tenant disputes and eviction cases. She says having a lawyer present allows families to better understand their options, their rights and to better navigate the complex emotional struggle that comes along with this legal process. The Eviction Defense Project is testing the hypothesis that it makes a difference for those facing an eviction to have a legal representative throughout the process. Beyond the legal help, the team has seen a drastic difference in the mental health, anxiety and impacts of those facing eviction.
“We believe strongly in the good outcomes we’ve seen so far from this,” Straus said. “We hear from our clients that when they have a lawyer with them, not only do they have someone in their corner who speaks the language, but they also feel real, visceral benefits on their health. They’re not as fearful about being evicted. They understand the process better which helps them lower anxiety and stress.”
As Portland continues to experience a housing crisis, the Eviction Defense Project can serve as a direct counter to the worst outcomes. Quite directly, eviction defense work is work to keep people housed, whether that’s by directly intervening in an unfair eviction or issues related to discrimination, lack of services from housing providers or harassment.
“For us to be involved at this point means something wrong has happened. Certainly, a large percentage of our clients are formerly homeless; the Eviction Defense Project is looking to put a plug in the cycle of returning to homelessness. If we can intervene and stop an eviction, we can help these people get into a less fragile space. Homelessness is one of the most important issues of the day, and it’s inextricably linked to this work.”
In a poignant example of the importance of this work, the Eviction Defense Project was able to successfully keep a person with developmental disabilities housed earlier this year. This person’s landlord had moved to evict him several times, and a neighbor was able to help this person connect with Oregon Law Center. Despite not having access to technology, knowledge of rental assistance programs and a tight turnaround time for the funds needed to dismiss the eviction, the Oregon Law Center team was able to provide them with an attorney and keep them housed, while United Way of the Columbia-Willamette was able to provide them with several month’s rent paid and a newfound access to rental assistance.
Becky Straus, Managing Attorney, Eviction Defense Project
“We can personalize the needs of individuals we serve much better than the state apparatus can,” said Linda King, Director of Housing at United Way of the Columbia-Willamette. “Oregon Law Center will continue to collaborate and strategize with us about what we can do to help keep people housed. We need to provide an agile, strategic and personalized support system to combat our housing crisis. It’s a testament to the reason we are in this space.”
With the national eviction moratorium ending last year and funding and interest in eviction defense ebbing, the problem will only become more pronounced as bills and backpay pile up. Straus and her team hope to take advantage of the momentum provided throughout the pandemic that has increased interest in renter’s rights, and they have their ears to the pavement to ensure they’re providing what our community needs.
“If we have an office in downtown Portland and rely on people coming into that office or calling, we’ll only be able to assist a certain demographic. We want to prioritize our work to make sure we are meeting communities where they are. Our mission is to increase access to justice for low-income communities, and we work very hard to listen to what our local communities need individually and collectively,” Straus said. “Oregon Law Center’s sole focus isn’t just on eviction defense, but it’s the communities need that has ramped up our efforts on eviction defense.”
With the need for rental defense still dire, United Way of the Columbia-Willamette is seeking additional funds to help. For more information on Oregon Law Center, visit their website. If you or someone you know is facing eviction, contact the Eviction Defense Project before your first court appearance and visit this page for more information on where you can find help. Additionally, you can call 211, visit their website at 211Info.org or look up the Community Alliance of Tenants for more information on renter’s rights.