Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is calling lawmakers back to Salem on Dec. 13 for a special session to address the state’s rent assistance program, which has run out of funds.
In a press release, the governor said she has come to an agreement with Sen. Kayse Jama, D-Portland, and Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene — the Legislature’s lead housing policy makers — regarding four specific goals lawmakers hope to achieve to protect renters through the winter months.
First would be extending eviction protections for Oregonians who’ve applied and are still awaiting rent assistance checks. Second, the Legislature is committing to fully pay landlords who are still awaiting payment of overdue rent.
The next steps would be to provide $90 million to replenish the rent assistance fund, and $100 million to the state’s community action agencies. That would let them transition from large-scale emergency rent assistance to a more robust network of locally delivered eviction prevention services.
The Legislature is also expected to give another $5 million to Oregon Housing and Community Services — the state agency responsible for administering the rent assistance program — for costs the department has incurred in responding to a surge in applications.
“As we enter our coldest months, it is absolutely essential that we take action to ensure no additional Oregon families are evicted when rental assistance is on the way,” Brown said in a statement. “I have spoken directly with Oregon renters in recent weeks about the pain and hardship their families have faced due to the economic impacts of the pandemic. We must take legislative action now to approve additional state funding for rental assistance, and to extend eviction protections for Oregonians who have applied for assistance.”
Tenant advocates, housing attorneys and elected officials have all been calling on the governor to convene a special session to prevent more Oregonians struggling due to economic hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic from being evicted and falling into homelessness.
Groups representing housing providers have not favored a special session. Rather, they’ve advocated that housing and community services could make administrative fixes to the software is uses for the rent assistance application portal combined with a legislative emergency board allocation to address the problem.
The state housing and community services agency recently announced it would be closing the online application portal for rental help for six weeks beginning Dec. 1 because the $289 million pot of federal money the state is using to provide rent assistance has been fully prescribed. The news came as the state was reporting an average of about 1,500 new applications for assistance each week.
So far, the state has distributed about $150 million in federal assistance to more than 22,000 households, but an additional 30,000-plus applications have yet to be fulfilled from that initial $289 million. Nearly $22 million in assistance was paid out by the state in the past two weeks alone.
Meanwhile, the 60-day safe harbor period passed by the Legislature earlier this year — in which renters who have applied for assistance can put a pause on their eviction proceedings — has expired for more than 13,000 households still waiting on assistance checks.
Fahey and Jama sent a letter to Brown in October asking her to take executive action to extend eviction protections. But Brown responded by saying she didn’t have the authority, and that the Legislature would need to step in.
Margaret Salazar, director of state housing and community services, told lawmakers in September that it would take 10 to13 weeks for her agency to work through the massive backlog in applications. But in an update to lawmakers two weeks ago, Salazar indicated the continued stream of applications is making it hard for her department to catch up.
Salazar said that the high volume of applications is an indication that the economic strain the pandemic has put on Oregon’s low-income families is far from lifted.
Tuesday’s announcement made it clear that state leaders are hoping to shift the burden of providing eviction protection from the state to its local community partners working directly with tenants across Oregon.
“I am continuing to work with federal officials at U.S. Treasury and the White House to secure additional federal emergency rental assistance funding for Oregon, but it is clear that a state solution is needed to address the urgent and immediate needs of Oregon renters,” Brown said. “And, we must begin laying the groundwork now for the transition to local eviction prevention services after federal pandemic emergency programs draw to an end.”
Aside from the $100 million allocation to community action agencies, some of the prevention strategies likely to be employed include helping connect tenants to legal representation, distributing assistance checks in court to prevent evictions, providing mediation and translation services in court, bolstering tenant outreach and education, placing caseworkers inside courts and closer collaboration between community partners and county courts.
Senate President Peter Courtney, always hesitant about special sessions, noted in a statement Tuesday that they are “the most difficult of all sessions.”
“Everything must be carefully planned,” he wrote. “We have a lot of work to do. I hope we will be ready.”
Republican leaders in the Senate declined to comment on the special session plans, but newly elected House Republican Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson released a statement saying she believes the special session is unnecessary.
“We must allow our economy to return to normal,” Breese-Iverson said. “After back-to-back years of record state revenue, the Emergency Board has the ability to allocate funds to support those already in line to receive rent assistance.”
According to the Brown’s release, lawmakers could also be asked to take on additional time-sensitive issues that cannot wait until their regularly scheduled short session in February during the special session.