Margaret Salazar has led Oregon Housing and Community Services as its director since 2016.

Margaret Salazar has led Oregon Housing and Community Services as its director since 2016.

Courtesy of Oregon Housing and Community Services

The director of Oregon’s lead housing agency responsible for administering the state’s rental assistance program says her department is “laser focused” on getting aid into the hands of renters who’ve requested it.

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Margaret Salazar spoke to reporters in a virtual press conference Thursday where she said that keeping Oregon families stably and safely housed is the main priority of Oregon Housing and Community Services.

The agency has received blanket criticism recently for slow processing of tens of thousands of applications for aid by tenants struggling to pay rent due to economic hardships posed by the lingering impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agency has paid out nearly 27,000 of the 53,361 applications the state has received. All of the $289 million Oregon was originally granted is either paid or promised to be paid.

The federal dollars running dry forced the housing department to stop taking new applications on Dec. 1. But after lawmakers convened in Salem earlier this week to replenish the fund with another $100 million, the agency expects to reopen the application portal in mid-January.

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“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 that it gave to their family when the check arrived,” Salazar said. “We know that there are thousands requesting historic levels of assistance that are still in need, and we’re doing everything in our power to process and pay applications as quickly as possible.”

Salazar said her agency is putting pressure on both its private contractor, Public Partnerships LLC, and high-performing community action agencies to continue to put their foot on the gas in processing these applications.

Oregon is ranked fourth in the nation in terms of distributing rental assistance funds. But Republicans and Democrats in Oregon have both taken shots at the state's lead housing agency this week for failing to quickly process loan assistance requests.

Oregon is ranked fourth in the nation in terms of distributing rental assistance funds. But Republicans and Democrats in Oregon have both taken shots at the state's lead housing agency this week for failing to quickly process loan assistance requests.

Sara Cline / AP

Oregon is ranked fourth in the nation in terms of distributing rental assistance funds and seen as a model on par with top-ranked New York state for running a successful program. But Republicans and Democrats in Oregon have taken shots at the agency this week for its perceived shortcomings.

Politicians — particularly those running for statewide elected office — argue that the state’s success compared to others who’ve struggled worse is cold comfort to the thousands who faced potential eviction before lawmakers approved an extension of protections giving them safe harbor while they await word on their application.

Some have even called for a performance audit of the agency’s work, which Salazar said she supports, but not until the program is finished administering the funds. That could be sometime in the fall so as to not pull focus, resources and labor from the task at hand.

“While we’ve implemented lessons learned along the way, and we’ve made numerous adjustments to try to improve the performance of the program and speed up dollars getting out the door, we know that there’s always room for improvement,” Salazar said. “We have a lot to learn from participating in an audit. We will, of course, fully cooperate with any audit that might be coming our way.”

Salazar said that as head of the state’s housing department, she’s accountable to the tenants and landlords counting on this program, as well as the community partners helping to administer it. She said she’s committed to ensuring all Oregonians remain in safe and affordable housing.

“It’s what gets me up in the morning. I’m a mom. I have young children, and they’re growing up in a world where they see tent cities and that’s normal to them,” Salazar said. “It’s not okay to me, and it’s not okay to the [Oregon Housing and Community Services] staff. That’s why we’re so committed to getting assistance out for folks and preventing folks from falling into homelessness or housing insecurity.”

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