As Oregon continues racing to get checks to more than 10,000 households on the verge of eviction, several prominent politicians and candidates for elected office are questioning: Where’s the accountability for the state agency responsible?
Lawmakers convened in Salem earlier this week to provide more funding for the state’s rental aid program, which has spent or committed all of the $289 million it was allocated by the federal government. Those dollars are meant to help Oregonians struggling with the lingering effects of the pandemic to pay their rent.
Legislators reached a bipartisan agreement to spend another $215 million to replenish the fund, establish a statewide system of more localized eviction prevention services and pay for some of the administrative costs incurred by Oregon Housing and Community Services for the high volume of applications they’ve processed during a historic time of need.
That’s not the only cross-party agreement this week: Big names on both sides of the political aisle have been taking swipes at the state’s lead agency on housing and its director.
Both sides have made it fashionable in recent weeks to take swipes at Oregon Housing and Community Services, the state’s lead agency on housing. Before the special session this week, Rep. Christine Drazan, R-Canby, called on Gov. Kate Brown to fire Margaret Salazar, director of the housing agency.
“The rollout and implementation of this much needed program has been grossly inadequate for struggling renters and landlords alike, who were promised relief but instead have been expected to wait patiently while the bills pile up,” said Drazan, who is running for governor.
Just a few days later, some argued on the House floor that perceived inefficiencies within the state’s housing department were a blight that would never be permitted within the business sector.
“If we performed at a 50% level, it just would not be tolerated by our employer,” said Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie. “As a body … I suggest that we can no longer tolerate this.”
Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson — who was recently elected by her GOP colleagues to replace Drazan as their leader in the House — said the only reason she and her colleagues were forced to return to the Capitol was because “a government agency has failed to get dollars out the door.”
“This legislation absolves OHCS of its numerous failures, provides no accountability and will permanently damage our naturally affordable housing supply by forcing property owners to sell,” she said.
Democrats seeking answers, too
Even the two Democrats who have led discussions on legislation to help renters and speed up the process of getting them aid now want a state audit of the agency. Both Rep. Julie Fahey and Sen. Kayse Jama have, at times, stood between the agency and the criticism hurled at Salazar, its leader of five years.
They’ve highlighted how Oregon is ranked fourth nationally in efficiency for getting its federal rental aid distributed. They’ve also been able to commit the agency to new accountability measures that will require them to fully spend the rest of the original $289 million by March 31 and this new state money by June 30, 2022, meaning they’d have a clear deadline for the first time.
But Fahey and Jama have now joined the call for answers to how and why the agency struggled with technology hiccups and a lackluster pace.
“We understand the enormous and unprecedented pressure that was placed on OHCS to get these funds out to support renters impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” they said. “However, we remain deeply troubled by the inconsistent results across counties, by technical difficulties with the Allita software, by what appears to be a lack of clear communication to renters and landlords, and above all, by the fact that more than 8,000 Oregonians are facing eviction at the time of our December special session because their application process has exceeded the statutory safe harbor period.”
On Tuesday, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nick Kristof sent his own letter to Fagan, and he went further. Kristof asked Fagan to audit every state agency that has an impact on Oregon’s continuum of homeless services.
The governor remains steadfast in her support for Salazar and her department. In a statement Wednesday, Brown said that every state in the nation faced challenges in helping renters.
She also described Salazar as one of the most effective government leaders in the entire state.
“She has led her dedicated team at OHCS with commitment and grace through an exceptionally demanding time that has tested, time and time again, our collective ability to meet the urgent needs of Oregonians on a scale that no one has ever faced before,” Brown said. “Director Salazar’s leadership has brought Oregon to fourth in the nation for distributing rental assistance in a matter of months. We have more work to do, and she remains the right person for the job.”
In her own written statement, Salazar said this saga has been extremely difficult for her agency and staff, who have put their “hearts and minds” into keeping Oregonians housed.
She also said she’s grateful to the Legislature and Brown for providing more time and protections to get that aid into the hands of those who need it.
“We’ve heard from Oregonians across the state about what a lifeline this funding has been for them, how much stability and peace of mind it gave to their family when the check arrived,” Salazar said. “We know there are thousands requesting historic levels of assistance that are still in need. We’re doing everything in our power to process and pay applications as quickly as possible.”
To date, the state has paid approximately 27,000 of the more than 53,000 completed applications for rent assistance.
In a floor speech during Monday’s special session, Rep. Wlnsvey Campos, D-Aloha — who works as a case manager for a homeless service provider in Beaverton — tried to quantify the issue for her colleagues by telling them that the state has processed more applications for assistance in the past two weeks than it did in all of 2019.
Campos said that decades of disinvestment in the systems that help families rise out of poverty are to blame, not the state housing agency.
“Yes, unfortunately this has been hard,” Campos said. “But here’s the thing: We have to look at the root of this problem. For decades, our agencies and systems have been gutted of funding due to policies that prioritize the riches of the rich and empty promises that this wealth would somehow trickle down.”