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. The goal is to extend eviction protections for renters and offer relief to landlords as well. Sen. Kayse Jama, D-Portland, and Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, are the architects of the proposal lawmakers will be digging into in the special session. We hear from these two lawmakers about their proposal.
The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Oregon lawmakers are being called back to Salem. Governor Kate Brown announced this week that there will be a special session on December 13. She wants the legislature to make changes to the state’s rental assistance program which has run out of federal funds. The proposal would extend eviction protections for renters whose applications are being considered and offer relief to landlords. There are other provisions as well. I’m joined now by the two Democratic lawmakers who helped craft the package. State Senator Kayse Jama from Portland and state Representative Julie Fahey from Eugene and Junction City. Welcome back to both of you.
Julie Fahey: Thanks Dave.
Kayse Jama: Thanks for having us.
Miller: Senator Jama first, before we get to the specific provisions in this proposal, I thought you could remind us what the actual situation is right now, why you called for a special session to begin with.
Jama: Thank you, Dave. I think the important thing to really take away from this conversation is that 10,000 Oregonian households are still facing the threat of eviction, although we have resources to help them. I think the pandemic really created a situation where we are struggling, a lot of Oregonians are struggling. And I think according to recent survey, up to 6,000 Oregonians are worried about not [being] able to pay their next month’s rent. So we have a really acute problem and one of the reasons that we try to address is how do we address those challenges that I mentioned. So hopefully this proposal in front of us that we’re putting together with Chair Fahey and other folks who are working on it helps us to get that solved and ensure that Oregonians are kept housed during the pandemic. That’s what we’re trying to address.
Miller: Julie Fahey, there are a few different pieces of this proposal so we can take them individually. What would this mean for Oregonians whose applications for rental assistance are currently in process but they’re waiting on that money?
Fahey: That’s really the crux of what we’re trying to do is that in June the legislature came together in a bipartisan way and passed a limited safe harbor from eviction for tenants who have applied for rental assistance. That safe harbor lasts 60 days from the time that a tenant gives their landlord documentation that they’ve applied. That law was designed to give the state and the rental assistance partners more time to process applications and send money to landlords. But, because of the large number of applications, it’s taken much longer than we anticipated for rental assistance providers in parts of the state to get that money out the door. So that means, as Senator Jama said, that there are more than 10,000 households who are outside of that window of protection. So part of what we are proposing is that the safe harbor protection should last as long as is needed to process that application so that no one is evicted when rental assistance is on the way to help them.
Miller: Has that already been happening? I mean, have Oregonians already been facing eviction proceedings who are in this exact position?
Fahey: We have seen.. there’ve been some great profiles in the media of tenants who are in this exact situation, who are outside of their safe harbor windows and face evictions. The Oregon Law Center has been tracking nonpayment eviction data since the moratorium expired. And we are seeing increases in the number of evictions for nonpayments that are happening around the state as our pandemic related protections begin to expire.
Miller: Kayse Jama, what about landlords? What is in this set of proposals for the owners of these properties?
Jama: I think the challenge is that we are in the middle of a pandemic and both the housing providers and the renters are impacted by this. So we’ve been communicating and working with the landlords as well as tenants’ organizations to ensure that we need to address this both sides. I think the landlords [have] been 18 months struggling with this and hopefully.. one of the reasons that we’re doing this is to address some of those challenges. And my hope is that, as we move forward, there will be different participant proposals and resources available to pay landlords. The amount of resources that we need is probably about a couple $100 million to address this crisis that we’re facing. So, as I said earlier, it is an Oregonian problem and needs an Oregonian solution so that’s what we’re trying to do here.
Miller: The couple $100 million you’re saying is necessary, that is not money that you’re prepared to allocate in a week and a half? You’re saying that would have to come later?
Jama: No, I think that’s the part of the proposal that we’re hoping to address. It will be part of the package, although details will be laid out later. That’s one of the reasons that hopefully we will be able to allocate these resources, because we need the resources now.
Miller: Julie Fahey, this proposal, if I understand correctly, would also allocate $100 million to the state’s community action agencies. Can you remind us what those agencies currently do?
Fahey: Dave, the $200 million proposal is for three main categories of things: There’s funding for rental assistance, direct funding to assist tenants which ultimately obviously benefits landlords. That funding would be distributed, some through the state system, some through local rental assistance providers. There would also be, we’re proposing, $10 million for what we call the landlord guarantee fund which is just to give landlords a backstop so that, if there is additional unpaid rent that occurs during the safe harbor, that they are able to be compensated for that rent because they delayed evictions. The third piece is the piece that you’re referring to, which is, we do really think that there should be funding for local organizations, including community action agencies which are agencies that administer the federal anti-poverty programs, to start thinking about the next phase of eviction prevention. So [there would be] flexible dollars to do more creative things like putting people in courthouses to write checks for tenants who might just need $1,000 or $2,000 to stave off that eviction or to fund caseworkers or tenant outreach and education. Rental assistance is the most important thing right now and that is what the vast majority of the funding that we’re proposing will go to, but the second piece of the sort of more wrap-around services and other things that need to happen to prevent evictions is also really important.
Miller: Meanwhile, the state recently stopped accepting new applications for rental assistance after having announced that almost $300 million of federal money has already been promised. That’s despite the fact that the state had been reporting an average of about 1500 new applications for assistance every week. So what about people who need help going forward who are not eligible for the safe harbor that you want to extend because they’re not yet in the system?
Fahey: I think it’s important to note, yes, the state program did have to pause applications. That is in part because all of the federal money has been committed. So that is one of the reasons why it’s so urgent for us to come back into special session to allocate funding to keep that application portal, so that application portal can reopen. We really want to make sure that, especially during the winter, that no Oregonian loses their home during this crisis. For the listeners out there, there are also local rental assistance programs in many parts of the state that are still accepting applications. So, in some parts of the state, there are still places for people to access that safe harbor and to get assistance. But our hope is that, by coming into special session, by coming together as a legislature to pass both the policy that changed to the safe harbor and this new funding, we’ll be able to keep people housed through the winter.
Miller: Republicans in the legislature had a few different critiques of this proposal. First of all, they don’t think that this should be the work of a special session, and we can talk about that in a second, but they had a broader critique that I want to start with. They wrote this in a statement, “We must allow our economy to return to normal. Our unemployment level, jobless claims and job openings have returned to pre-pandemic years.” Julie Fahey first, how do you explain the fact that there is still so much need, given that these economic indicators that house Republicans bring up have improved so much?
Fahey: I think that Republican statement really is an oversimplification of what many families are going through right now. We know, for example, that many people are back to work but they’re struggling to pay off the back rent that they might be behind on for when they were laid off during last year. We also know that some people have had to leave the workforce because they can’t find childcare. And [we know] that this year some of the most vulnerable Oregonians have struggled to access the rental assistance programs that have been offered: seniors without access to technology, people with disabilities, non-English speakers. So we have to make sure that people stay housed and we do have an opportunity to come together and do that now.
Miller: Kayse Jama, you have noted that the pandemic didn’t create a housing crisis; instead, it worsened an existing one. I’m curious what you see as a potential endpoint for this emergency. I mean, house Republicans are saying that we have to go back to normal. As we just heard from Julie Fahey, your colleague, we’re not at normal now. But I’m wondering what you see as either the timeline or the process for how we are not in this particular moment anymore, specifically in terms of housing.
Jama: Thank you Dave. Just to respond to the question and also to what Chair Fahey said earlier, I think the reality is that, yes, [the] job market is improving and it’s way better than a year ago when this pandemic started. But I can tell you, though, [from] talking to community members that, if you owe $10,000 rent back pay, although you still have a job, you are still at risk to be evicted. As we said earlier, there’s 10,000 Oregonians who are facing the threat of eviction. So the reality is that, yes, maybe we have a better economic [outlook] right now. The challenge is that this problem started because of the pandemic; we’re in the middle of the pandemic; we haven’t seen the end of the pandemic. And the challenge is that the outcome of those Oregonians, particularly BIPOC Oregonians and low-income Oregonians, are still struggling because of the impact of the COVID-19.
Miller: Julie Fahey, I want to give you a chance to respond to a more specific point brought up by Republican lawmakers, which is that this should be handled with the Emergency Board made up of a small number of lawmakers that could meet to handle particular budget questions. Why is a special session in particular necessary?
Fahey: So the Emergency Board can’t solve this crisis. Only a special session can do that. That’s because the board doesn’t have the authority to extend the current safe harbor protections, which is what we need to do to keep the thousands of Oregonians in their home that are waiting for rental assistance. The Emergency Board can’t amend state law; they can only allocate funding.
Miller: The standard line in the past is that a governor doesn’t call for a special session for any particular issue unless the votes have been counted and they are in hand to pass what the governor has called lawmakers back to Salem to do. So, given that she has called the session, is it fair to say that you all have counted the votes?
Fahey: I would say that while we’re still ironing out some of the final details on the proposal, getting the language drafted, I’ve been really encouraged by the progress that we’ve made on those negotiations. Ultimately this is about keeping people housed and ensuring that landlords get the money that they are owed. Throughout the pandemic, we have come together in a bipartisan way to do just that several times. Every time we’ve taken action on tenant protections and financial support for tenants and landlords, it has been bipartisan during the pandemic. And I’m really optimistic that we can do that again this time.
Miller: Will any other issues, besides housing, be taken up in this special session in a week and a half?
Fahey: Senator Jama, I don’t know if you want to..
Jama: I think for us, [that’s what] our focus is about. We’re the chairs of the Housing Committee, both in the Senate and the House. So our focus has been addressing the challenge of our housing issues that we’re facing, the crisis that will be set on housing. That’s our focus.
Miller: And Julie Fahey, before we say goodbye, you hinted at this when we talked a little bit, for example, about community action agencies, but I’m curious if you’re ready to call for longer-term changes to the way the state approaches housing assistance, given the emergency of the last 20 plus months.
Fahey: That is a really great question, Dave. I think we have learned quite a lot during the pandemic about the best way to get help to the people who need it. Before the pandemic, we did not have a system to distribute significant amounts of rental assistance dollars. We had a system where smaller amounts of money were distributed by local nonprofits or community action agencies in the community. Sometimes I like to think about it as comparing.. For folks who need assistance with getting enough food to eat, it’s the difference between having a local food bank for those folks to access versus a more systems approach like setting up a SNAP benefits program. So, prior to the pandemic, we had this local system to distribute smaller amounts of money. What’s really needed is more of a systematic solution. That’s the shift that we needed to make during the pandemic, to set up this whole new system to deal with the unprecedented levels of need that was out there. And I think we have a lot to learn. We had some really good experiences in the pandemic in terms of distributing help. I think the stimulus checks from the IRS were an efficient way to do that. And then there were areas where we had more challenges. So I’m hopeful that we’ll have the chance to sort of take a step back and reflect about what are the lessons we learned during the pandemic and what are those improvements that we need to make going forward.
Miller: Julie Fahey and Kayse Jama, thanks very much.
Fahey: Thank you, Dave.
Miller: Julie Fahey is a Democratic state representative from West Eugene in Junction City, District 14. Kayse Jama is a Democratic state senator from Portland, District 24.
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