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 December 1. She says the pause is necessary because, without more federal money, the state cannot continue to offer rental assistance. The pause will also allow the agency to work through a backlog of applications. We hear from Salazar.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Every week for months now thousands of Oregonians have been applying for federal rental assistance through a state program. They’re seeking to avoid eviction and now to stay in their homes as the winter approaches. But the state of Oregon recently announced that it’s putting a six week pause on new applications for its rental assistance program. Margaret Salazar is the Director of the Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services. She joins us with the details. Welcome back to Think Out Loud.
Margaret Salazar: Good afternoon! Thank you so much for having me.
Dave Miller: Thanks for joining us again. How did you decide that this pause was necessary?
Salazar: Thank you so much. Just as a reminder for your listeners, the program we’re talking about is the Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program. It is a one time emergency source of funds that we received from the federal government. And it was a limited amount of resources, approximately $289 million dollars available for rental assistance payments to help families catch up with rental arrearages and some forward payments of rent to prevent evictions and stay stably housed. Now when we first saw the amount of dollars coming into Oregon, I think we believed that it would be sufficient to get us through this crisis. I think what we’re seeing is just an overwhelming need and amount of applications continuing to come through the door. So as we looked at the pace of applications continuing to come in and the level of funding that we had available. We had to make the difficult decision to really see that the program is nearly fully subscribed and we just can’t continue to take in applications when we do not have sufficient funding to be able to pay the rental assistance for those applicants. We did announce last Friday a pause on accepting applications after December 1st.
Miller: How did you decide on that? That the pause won’t start for another two weeks or so?
Salazar: That’s right. We wanted to give families an opportunity to apply. We know that folks have a lot on their plate, we know that the trauma of housing insecurity is real and that it’s not something that folks maybe have taken action on yet, but we wanted to give them an opportunity to get their application in and to do some advanced planning. We worked with an array of community based organizations that are helping folks to apply for this assistance. So we wanted to give them some notice to be able to get those applications in. So it was a balancing act of really looking at the amount of funds we have available, trying to be good stewards of those funds, but also giving folks that opportunity to get their application in. And so for your listeners, folks can still apply by going to oregonrentalassistance.org [Oregon Rental Assistance dot org].
Miller: A couple days ago, we talked to a spokesperson from the OLCC talking about a pause that they put in place three years ago now for at the time accepting new applications for cannabis business licenses and they actually did something similar. They said we’re going to put this pause in place in just a couple of weeks so get your applications in now. They ended up seeing a huge increase in that brief window, before it closed for new applications. I’m wondering if you are expecting a similar thing. You’re telling Oregonians you only have two weeks to get these applications in. Are you going to see, do you think, a huge increase in applications?
Salazar: That is a great question, Dave, thank you for asking that it is definitely something that we’re looking at and that folks who operate waiting lists and operate application intake for programs are always sort of looking at that trend. We have not yet seen a wave of new applications come in the door, but we also haven’t seen the applications slow down. So we do expect to get some additional applications and based on our estimates of the program, we believe we have a little bit of wiggle room there to receive those additional applications that gives us a little bit of time to get new applications in. I will say that while we are assuring all Oregonians who already have applications submitted that we will have sufficient funds to pay their application, I can’t guarantee that if we do get a wave of new applications that we will have sufficient dollars to pay out rent assistance for all of those applications. That’s one of the reasons why we need to take this pause to be able to assess where we’re at. I would also just note for your listeners that the good news is that for folks that live in Oregon’s larger communities, cities and counties such as Multnomah County, Washington County, Clackamas County, Lane County and Marion County, they’re running their own local rental assistance programs and we believe that there are funds available in those programs. So that’s another resource as well.
Miller: And that money too, comes from the federal government. Is that right?
Salazar: That’s right.
Miller: What can people do if they live in those counties, how can they get more information about those specific programs?
Salazar: We will be putting information up on our website to make sure that folks can find that information; we’ll be sure to share that with the media as well, so that after December first, folks know where to go to access that assistance.
Miller: Are these applications handled on a first come first served basis? This gets back to the potential for a big increase in applications and as you noted, the fact that there’s no guarantee that there will be enough federal money in the pot for everybody who might ask in the coming weeks.
Salazar: That’s a great point. So when we launched the Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program, we intentionally looked at how to prioritize applications based on risk of eviction, as well as based on housing insecurity. Then we also over laid our goals around equity and racial justice and reached to Oregon’s BIPOC communities by looking at neighborhoods that are at risk of housing insecurity as well. So we do have that sort of prioritization in place. As we’re processing applications, we’re trying to prioritize those applications that have been in the queue the longest, because those are folks that are at highest risk of eviction, so that continues to be our priority. But we do have other factors that we’re looking at. We even included factors around wildfire impacted areas, because we know that those parts of the state are really still reeling from a lack of available housing. So it’s not exactly first come, first serve. We are looking at other risks as well, as part of a kind of live process that we use to develop our queue and move applications through.
Miller: I’m curious about the mechanism of the equity lens that you were just talking about. Am I right that you can’t, under federal law, say, ‘we’re going to put a Black applicant ahead of a white applicant solely on the basis of race?’
Salazar: That’s right. We have a methodology that we use from the Urban Institute. So this is sort of a nationally recognized best practice from researchers at the Urban Institute, to try to really get at those neighborhoods that are at significant risk for gentrification and displacement, and that also have sort of fact-based proxies around housing instability and insecurity. So these are well worn research tools that we’ve been able to use in our state.
Miller: If you’re just tuning in. We’re talking right now with Margaret Salazar, she’s the Director of the Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services. The state announced recently that it’s putting a six week pause on new applications for rental assistance. Let’s turn to the six week question because based on what you’ve said, the reason for this quote-unquote pause is that it’s basic math. You’ve got close to a third of a billion dollars in federal money you’re giving out and pretty soon all the money will be gone. That makes it seem like this isn’t a six week pause at all. This is just ‘when the money is gone, it’s gone.’ So what does a six weeks mean?
Salazar: Thank you so much for that. So just to be clear, first of all, when we say that we’re taking a six week pause, it’s the pause on new applications coming into the system. So rest assured that we will still be working all hands on deck to process all the applications that we’ve received for the program. We won’t be slowing down getting dollars out the door. At our current clip, we’re getting $10-12 million dollars out the door every week for this program. It’s really a staggering amount of assistance that we’re deploying. That will continue. But during that six week period, we’ll also be able to assess the applications that we have currently gotten in the door. And again, we expect that some of those applications may not be valid, they may not be eligible. There may be duplicates in the system. And so that will give us an ability to assess the validity of those applications to see if there’s a chance that there may be additional dollars available that we could make available and open the doors to the program again. I’ll also note that the other thing that we’ll be doing during that six week period is continuing to advocate for more rental assistance. I think that’s something that we’ve all started to recognize, is that even with this really significant influx of federal dollars and even those local programs on the ground in those communities I mentioned earlier, it’s just not enough to meet Oregon’s needs, which should not be surprising to us given our longstanding housing crisis. So we recently asked the US Treasury Department for an additional $198 million dollars for this program, that could be re-allocated from other states. Oregon is a national leader in this program, so that makes us eligible to request dollars from other states. We just don’t know if those dollars will come in and we don’t know that they’ll come in before the six weeks is up.
Miller: When you say a national leader, do you mean a national leader in getting money out the door, or a national laggard -- in terms of the need among Oregon residents? I mean in other words, why should Oregon get more money from other states that’s already been allocated by Congress?
Salazar: When the U. S. Congress allocated funds for this program to states and cities, they used a formula that I think even Congress acknowledged was their best guess in terms of what the housing need would be, the COVID impact on folks. This is really intended to be a COVID-response program. Oregon got our share, California, Washington State, and I think folks are starting to recognize that the demand is simply greater in some states than others. What makes us eligible to request funds from other states, is we met a really important benchmark, which was that 65% of the funds had to be obligated by September 30. We did meet that benchmark and we are currently in the top 10 states, nationally, in terms of the amount of dollars and the speed with which we’re getting dollars out the door, which is an important factor that the US Treasury Department will look at as they’re deciding whether or not to pull funds from other states that are not meeting those targets, and allocating those to states that are meeting those targets. So we’ve got both the demonstrated demand and the performance of really the most successful rental assistance program in Oregon’s history in terms of scale and speed. So that positions us well, we just don’t know how much resource will actually be available nationally and when we may be able to receive it.
Miller: There’s a real contrast here though. It may be that no housing assistance program in state history has gotten this much money out the door this quickly and that we are doing better than 40 other states. Nevertheless, we’re still hearing stories from Oregonians about the challenges they’ve had in navigating a system that they find to be complicated and cumbersome. And just the long delays that a lot of people are still having in terms of getting this money that they desperately need. How do you explain that?
Salazar: Thank you for that question. And I hear that, and we certainly know that a lot of folks are really invested in this program’s success, and we know that anxiety is high because the risk of eviction is real for folks, and I don’t want to discount that or discredit that eviction is traumatic, and we’re doing everything we can to prevent evictions for thousands of people. We definitely hear the feedback that the program is difficult to access, folks are having trouble applying. We’re taking all that feedback under advisement. If we receive additional dollars and we’re able to open doors again for this program, we will absolutely make program improvements. We’re dedicated to continuous improvement even as we’re racing to get these funds out. And I would just also say that the state’s 60 day safe harbor period for evictions, while it’s working in some parts of the state, in our most populous counties it just has not been enough time for folks to get their arms around the number of applications that have come in, and we understand that folks are timing out of those 60 day, in some cases 90 day, protections and we need to get tenants more time as well.
Miller: Before we say goodbye, let’s turn to that briefly. There’s been a lot of talk, as you know, about the possibility of a special legislative session at which lawmakers could extend the so-called Safe Harbor provisions for eviction prevention and potentially put more state money toward rental relief. What’s the latest you’ve heard in terms of the backroom conversations about the possibility of a special session?
Salazar: This is an active conversation that is unfolding in real time. I’ll be testifying this afternoon in the Senate Housing Committee as part of Legislative Days. I would say that there’s a recognition that tenants need more time, that the 60 day safe harbor protections are not universally protecting tenants across the state. And folks are worried about current program applicants who are seeing those protections time out. I think that folks are just now starting to understand that additional rental assistance is needed, that while we’re worried about evictions for folks who have applied for the program, there are all those Oregonians who have not had a chance to apply yet, who also need access to rental assistance. And so rental assistance has to be part of this package. And the third piece I would say is folks starting to understand that, even if this program could reach everyone, even if folks were thrilled with the application process and we fixed all of the concerns that folks have, we do not have an underlying eviction prevention infrastructure in our state. So there’s an understanding as well that we need more supports around preventing evictions and building out that social safety net. So, those are the three things I think folks are talking about and we’ll be watching along with you to see how this conversation unfolds.
Miller: Margaret Salazar, thanks for your time, once again. I appreciate it.
Salazar: Thank you so much.
Miller: Margaret Salazar is the Director of the Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services.
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