The state of Oregon is halting its rental assistance program, despite receiving thousands of applications weekly from people seeking the state’s help to stay in their homes as winter approaches.
Margaret Salazar, the director of Oregon Housing and Community Services, said the state is pausing the federal emergency rental assistance program for six weeks starting the first of December.
“This is a challenging balancing act,” Salazar said, in an interview with OPB. “We simply do not have funds available to continue to accept applications in perpetuity … which is why we are advocating for more dollars, but we don’t yet have dollars.”
The state’s housing agency also says the pause will allow time to work through an immense backlog. Although Salazar’s agency has committed nearly all of the $289 million it was allocated, a significant chunk — $159 million — has yet to actually reach renters.
According to the state, approximately $130 million has been paid out to 19,600 Oregon households. Another 28,500 households are still waiting for their applications to be processed and payments to keep them housed.
In June of this year, Gov. Kate Brown signed a law protecting Oregon renters from eviction if they couldn’t pay their rent. The law granted renters a 60-day “safe harbor” period from being evicted. Once a tenant applied for rental assistance, the law protected them from eviction for sixty days.
After Dec. 1, those seeking help will need to find other emergency rental assistance programs across the state to be eligible for the safe-harbor protections. Multnomah County offers 90-day protection from being evicted.
The state ending its program comes as lawmakers in Salem discuss a potential special session to address helping the thousands of families facing the threat of eviction for nonpayment of rent. Many of those requiring assistance continue to struggle from the economic hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, chairs the Housing Committee and is pushing for a special session.
“It’s clear that we need to help tenants who are still waiting on rental assistance payments so no one is evicted because of administrative delays in processing applications,” Fahey said in a statement.
Fahey said she’s hoping Gov. Brown will reconvene the Legislature so lawmakers could approve additional funding for the program and extend the 60-day eviction safe harbor.
The governor said in a statement she is engaging in conversations with legislative leaders and housing advocates to make updates to tenant protection laws.
“But it will be impossible to serve every Oregon family that is struggling with rent with state resources alone,” the governor said. “Those conversations will continue, with the goal of bringing forward a proposal for the Legislature to consider in a special session in the upcoming weeks.”
Between 1,000 and 3,000 households apply for rental assistance each week, according to Salazar.
“We had expected the influx of applications to drop off and that has not occurred,” she said.
In September, the housing agency estimated it would need about 13 weeks to work through the current backlog of applications. The large number of applications continuing to come in show the need for further funding is present with the state’s eviction moratorium expired back in July and more renters finding themselves in legal trouble.
The state housing agency had previously relied heavily on local community agencies to help distribute money to tenants in their communities. But it recently pivoted to a private contractor, Public Partnerships, LLC, for help processing applications in an effort to streamline the process.
As of Nov. 10, the private contractor had completed and paid out 34% of the applications it was responsible for compared to 43% for those handled by community agencies.
Deborah Imse, executive director of Multifamily Northwest — a housing association that represents residential property managers of more than 200,000 units statewide — sent a letter to legislative housing chairs Sen. Kayse Jama and Rep. Fahey on Tuesday raising concerns about the private contractor’s ability to process applications.
“The leadership at OHCS (Oregon Housing Community and Services) continues to make the argument that centralized processing and outsourcing rent assistance to a third-party vendor is the solution,” Imse wrote. “The public data provided by OHCS suggest just the opposite.”
Salazar dismissed those concerns as a false narrative, saying everyone needs to be working together.