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The Eviction Mill

Lessons learned from a day spent in Deschutes County eviction court

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At first, the falling snow brought joy.

Stephanie Williams' kids gleefully scampered outside, throwing snowballs in front of their southeast Bend duplex. "It was so great to see them so happy," says Williams, "But then I thought, if they cancel school how will I pay for daycare? I knew I couldn't afford for them to stay home... I was already just barely making it, you know?"

That was the least of Williams' worries. The huge snowfalls of early 2017 brought about what many other Central Oregonians experienced: an ice dam on the roof that caused their ceiling to partially collapse.

"My youngest came screaming into my room, totally drenched in water," recalls Williams, "He said something had fallen from the ceiling." The ceiling's drywall had partially caved in next to her six-year-old's bed. The landlord, who Williams didn't want to name, was out of town and couldn't be reached for five days. Eventually he sent a disaster relief team out, but with anecdotal reports of hundreds of houses experiencing the same situation and insurance teams stalling, Williams claims they lived with an exposed, rotting ceiling for nearly half a year.

"That was the straw that broke the camel's back," she laments. "I'd already had a huge list of things that I had asked him to fix— there was black mold in the bathrooms when we moved in, two of the stove burners didn't work and one of the windows didn't completely close, so we had to jack up the electric in the winter." Williams pauses, teary. "So I needed to send a message to him that he couldn't treat us this way." Williams did what thousands had done before her: she stopped paying rent.

There was radio silence for eight days after she first withheld rent. On the ninth day, Williams says she came home to an eviction notice. Governed by the Residential Landlord and Tenant chapter of the Oregon Revised Statutes, landlords legally can wait eight days to file an "Oregon Notice to Vacate," giving the tenant a three-day notice to pay the rent. Then they can file with the court to start eviction proceedings. In this case, the proceedings took place in Deschutes County Circuit Court. According to 2018 court records, that court sees an average of 32 eviction cases per week, or more than 1,600 first appearances per year.

I asked Williams why she didn't just pay the rent instead of facing eviction in an already tight rental market. "It was the only leverage that I thought I had... and I honestly thought that because it was the dead of winter, he wouldn't really kick us out," she said.

Williams was wrong.

When she failed to appear for the court-ordered "first appearance" which the tenant must attend, the judge ruled in favor of the landlord. Williams says she had to work and couldn't afford to take the day off. When they came to lock her out, she found herself forced out onto the street. Eventually she moved in with a relative. Now, with an eviction on her record, has said it's nearly impossible to find a place to rent on her own.

Landlords and tenants: what's the norm?

"This is actually quite common," says James Boyer, an Oregon-based attorney specializing in landlord-tenant law. "At times, tenants simply aren't aware of their rights. So I see a lot of final rulings in favor of the landlord, simply because the tenant didn't know they had to be there or they didn't prepare the legal grounds to challenge the eviction."

Boyer believes the stress of eviction proceedings yields to what he calls the "ostrich scenario."

"I'd speculate that many of these tenants are already in high-stress life situations, and so adding eviction proceedings into the mix yields a kind of, 'I'll just hide my head in the sand and hope this goes away' kind of thinking—which of course, doesn't work in the legal system."

Boyer isn't familiar with Williams' case, but speculates that a tenant like her in a similar situation could have gotten reprieve in the legal system. "A landlord in Oregon must maintain a rental in habitable conditions, and that means waterproofing and weather protection as well as working electrical facilities—so if she had showed, she may have gotten him to fix the situation quickly."

Boyer also adds that Williams made the mistake of only verbally notifying the landlord of her qualms with the unit. "It gets sticky, but the tenant needs to provide the landlord written notice of the repair or essential service that needs to be provided... and if they don't provide the repair within a reasonable time frame then she could had made the repair herself and deducted it from the rent in general. But again, these are little details a lot of tenants aren't aware of."

Boyer says that though legal battles may seem to be hard to wade through, there is free help available. That includes OregonLawHelp.org—a free resource offering legal assistance, advice and pro bono service for those whose income qualifies. The Oregon State Bar also has an extensive legal database covering landlord-tenant issues.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition's 2018 Out of Reach Report, nearly 40 percent of Oregon's 1.5 million households are renters—that's 597,158 households, not people. In the first half of 2018, more than 9,000 evictions were filed in Oregon, according to the Oregon Judicial Branch. Most cases are referred to court-ordered mediation, so it's tough to determine the outcomes of most cases, and if the tenants were eventually evicted.

An affordable housing property manager, Leah Miller,* says, "A lot of my current tenants started off pretty well off; it's just one thing or another that brought them here. I reflect on that a lot, how it can be just one thing—a loss of a job, a death, one bad mistake—and all of a sudden you can't afford a home or have a place to live."
*name changed for privacy

Her waiting list is "hundreds deep," she says. Applicants usually wait years before a spot opens up. "I get phone calls every day from people checking in on their application status. Every day, I have to say 'no, not yet.'"

Monday morning blues

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Out of the 16 landlord tenant eviction cases set for first appearance at 8:15am in Courtroom E of the Deschutes County Circuit Court July 2, nearly 40 percent—or six tenants—didn't appear. The judge, not present at the time, would automatically rule in the landlord's favor in those cases. "Generally they show up," says Kim Richey, a property manager for Umbrella Properties. Richie manages four apartment buildings and says the eviction cycle ebbs and flows throughout the year. "I'm generally here a few times a month," she says. "And you definitely notice more cases closer to the holiday periods where people maybe don't budget for rent."

Of the remaining 10 renters, all chose to go to mediation— a free service provided by the court. "There's no harm in trying mediation," boasts a court clerk as she circles the room. "In mediation you can talk about payment plans, your issues with the property and so on...at trial the judge will only decide who has the right to the property." Clearly, the push is for mediation. On this day, the clerk gives the no-shows a grace period of a few extra minutes to show. Slightly after 8:30 am she calls it. No one else showed.

"Mediation cures all ills," says Eric Mathews, 53, of Maple Leaf Legal Services. In his nearly 19 years in the eviction business, he calls himself the landlord's "professional hard ass." Mathews represents landlords or property management companies. "I'm not a lawyer, I mean, look at my shorts," he says, laughing, "but I do know the law." Mathews helps clients throughout the eviction process—from serving the initial eviction papers to subsequent court appearances, mediation attempts and final lock-out proceedings.

Mathews speculates that out of a hypothetical 10 pending evictions, six or seven tenants will show for their first appearance in court and that all if not most will try mediation first. "It's your opportunity to try and sort things out, and unlike trial, you can talk about anything that's wrong with the property, come up with a payment plan if needed, get things sorted," he says, "And it's legally enforceable."

Mathews says landlords used to not be as open to mediation and would skip it—until the court decided to start imposing trial fees. "Landlords seem to be more willing to talk now," he says, "and it pays to talk because it will take roughly two weeks for them to get a trial from the first appearance date." He also notes that larger property management groups tend to be more open to negotiating with tenants, whereas private property owners are more apt to kick "John Smith out on a whim." He speculates this is probably because they feel the loss of rental income more heavily than larger property management companies with a vast portfolio.

Of the cases that do go to mediation, Mathews says out of 10, maybe one will go to court. In all his years spent in the legal system, he's only lost five cases—"pretty much on technicalities or misinformation from the property owner."

He notes the change in eviction rates in recent years—estimating that eviction rates seem to be going down. "I understand that bad things happen to good people, but from what I've seen there are also people who use this as a lifestyle." Mathews tells tales of the lady who he's evicted 17 times, how he's had to pull his gun in two separate incidents when serving papers or the man who would purposely write bad checks for security deposits and then would ride out the eviction process for free rent. "We finally ran those guys out of town... but yeah, they do exist and I see a lot of it."

Mathews says that in the past he would see more evictions because the rental market allowed for tenants to move around. Now, with the rental market facing a tight squeeze, tenants can't bop from one property to the next. "In a weird way, this whole thing has made tenants behave," he says.

If at trial the judge rules in favor of the landlord, Mathews says the tenant will then have four business days from the next day to move out. On the fifth day, he, a locksmith and the sheriff show up to give the tenant 15 minutes to move out.

"That's when the crying starts," he laments. "Sometimes tenants will send their kids to the front door to answer the sheriff and then they'll point to us and say, 'These are the bad men who are kicking us out of our home.' And you know what, it's hard to look at the kids, but at the same time I don't have sympathy anymore because they've had all this time to figure it out."

Mathews is quick to add that if a tenant looks as though they will comply with the moveout —and depending on the particular sheriff's deputy handling the lockout—he will give leeway to those trying. "I'll tell them, OK I'll leave the place unlocked until 6pm and then I'll swing around and hopefully they've moved out or they have made enough progress to allow them more time."

And for those who have evictions on their records and now are having a hard time finding a place, Mathews says that with all available pre-trial options, the ones who do have evictions on their records may have been able to avoid that.

"If you mediate, it'll be wiped from your record within a few months." For potential landlords he advocates: "Screen, screen, screen," he says. "If you screen correctly you'll usually be able to avoid bad tenants." Though he warns that in his experience sometimes past eviction records don't show up in records. But, tenants aren't all the worry. "There are just as many bad landlords as there are bad tenants," he says. So he tell tenants that if something is wrong with your property, put it in writing. "Verbal agreements are as good as the paper they're written on."

Finally, Mathews' advice for those facing eviction? Communicate. "Nine out of 10 landlords want to work with you," he says, "You just have to communicate."

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