Calls for a special session of the Oregon Legislature to take up protections for renters waiting to find out if they’ll get federal help to avoid eviction grew louder Wednesday.
A letter signed by leaders of more than 50 organizations — including tenant advocacy groups, unions, local housing authorities, counties, cities and other social service agencies — urged Gov. Kate Brown, Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek to prevent nonpayment rent evictions.
Protections for renters passed earlier this year have expired or are about to end for approximately 12,000 Oregon households. The state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program has more than $200 million in federal cash to help Oregonians remain housed, but the state agency responsible for doling out of the funds has a major backlog.
That means those households could be evicted even as the state rushes to get checks into their hands.
“More than 15,000 additional applications are also in the system, waiting for review and getting closer to their expiration dates every day. Across the state, this means that more than 27,000 households are at risk of eviction due to processing delays, as winter rapidly approaches,” the letter reads. “This is unacceptable.”
The list of groups signing onto Wednesday’s letter includes the Oregon Law Center, Oregon Housing Alliance, Housing Oregon, Metro, Washington County, Lane County, Clackamas Women’s Services, Home Forward, Join PDX, Metropolitan Family Services, AFSCME Council 75, SEIU Local 503, the City of Beaverton, the City of Bend and many others.
Democrats Sen. Kayse Jama and Rep. Julie Fahey lead the two legislative housing committees tasked with coming up with solutions to keep Oregonians housed. They’re also the chief architects of Senate Bill 278, which passed earlier this year and placed a 60-day pause on eviction proceedings for renters who could prove they’d applied for federal rent assistance.
But now that 60-day “safe harbor” has or is about to expire for many renters who have been waiting months for Oregon Housing and Community Services and their community partners to process an historically large volume of applications.
More than $300 million has been requested by upward of 38,000 households continuing to struggle to pay rent and back rent due to economic hardships brought on over the past 18 months by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an update to lawmakers in early October, OHCS leaders said it could take 10 to 13 weeks for the state agency to catch up on the massive backlog of applications.
But tenant advocates and housing attorneys continue to raise the alarm that there isn’t enough time for those whose protections are running out.
That’s led local elected officials and housing services providers to unite in calls for a special session to address the growing crisis.
Jama and Fahey wrote their own letter to the governor asking her to take executive action in halting eviction proceedings once again. But according to Brown, the way SB 278 was written precludes her from using her power to act independently in extending protections.
“The Governor continues to work with legislators to explore potential solutions, but at this time any solutions to address issues surrounding evictions must be enacted in partnership with the Legislature as a part of the legislative process,” said Charles Boyle, deputy communications director for Brown.
Now Jama and Fahey are working with a group of tenant advocacy groups and landlord organizations to vet ideas lawmakers could consider in a special session. Legislative leadership is also involved in those discussions, including Kotek, who tweeted out her approval for a special session last week.
“Everyone has been working hard and troubleshooting problem areas as they arise. This is a tremendous task, and we are in an extremely difficult time,” Jama said Wednesday. “The need for housing support was substantial before the pandemic, and that has simply become (more true). I’m working with Chair Fahey and leadership to ensure OHCS has what they need so we can keep Oregonians in their homes.”
What could a special session cover?
Jama said there are three specific areas lawmakers expect to address in a special session.
The first is fixing the application system to ensure that requests for help are being processed as quickly as possible and checks are being cut in a timely manner.
The second is identifying additional funding sources to replenish the money being spent as applications are processed; nearly 1,600 new applications representing $10 million in requests are filed each week.
Finally, lawmakers could enact new protections to ensure that those waiting for their applications to be processed aren’t evicted while the state has money in hand that could help keep them housed.
“We must make certain those who are waiting for their approval and the funds to come through remain housed,” Jama said. “To do otherwise would create an even bigger emergency.”
Jama and other lawmakers have continued to highlight the fact that the pandemic and housing instability have hit Oregon’s low-income families and communities of color the hardest.
According to U.S. Census “pulse data” gathered between Sept. 29 and Oct. 11, more than 67,000 Oregon households lack confidence they can pay next month’s rent.
Jama said that ensuring housing stability, especially for households that are Black, Indigenous and people of color, is one of the state’s most important responsibilities at this time.
Concerns have been raised over whether political backlash following the redistricting effort that played out in Salem this September could have consequences on how the Legislature works moving forward.
Jama said he’s confident that the Legislature can do its job to protect those facing eviction and not throw the state into an even deeper crisis.
“We are considering many ideas about how to improve the system. All ideas are on the table. We are getting input from stakeholders and have great confidence in the good faith discussions,” Jama said. “Oregonians have come together time and again to provide solutions to great crises, and this is no different.”