For the first time, Portland's utility bureaus will help out families in apartments at risk of eviction by providing what amounts to a rebate on their utility bills.
Since 1995, the Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services have offered aid to help low-income customers at risk of having their water shut off, but the programs have excluded most renters, who generally aren't billed separately for water and sewer services because they pay for utilities as part of their rent.
"It's been the challenge that we've faced, and utilities across the country have faced, in how do you expand this program to customers who don't have a separate meter?" said Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the utility bureaus.
Portlanders renting apartments are twice as likely to have incomes below the poverty level than Portlanders in single family homes. A 2017 audit of the aid programs urged the bureaus to find a way to help renters.
The city's new proposal: partner with Home Forward, Portland's federal housing authority.
The Water Bureau and the Bureau of Environmental Services have proposed funneling $640,000 into Home Forward's short-term rent assistance program.
The program provides direct payments to landlords and property managers to help tenants avoid eviction if they fall behind on their rent.
Each qualifying family will be eligible once per year for a $500 payment, equal to roughly 85 percent of the annual cost of water and sewer services for an apartment, according to the Water Bureau.
"We're very excited, after years and years of work on this, that we've finally cracked the code and will be able to provide even more assistance to needy families," Fish said.
Fish believes the program complies with language in the city charter that limits the utility bureaus' spending to projects related to providing water and sewer services.
"We are allowed to set the rates for our customers," he said, "and we have the legal authority to provide discounts."
The city recently settled a yearslong lawsuit that alleged that the utility bureaus had inappropriately spent ratepayer funds on priorities that should have been paid using the city's general fund.
In a letter that accompanied the Water Bureau's budget request, the Oregon Citizens' Utility Board — a group that represents customers — expressed support for the new program.
"The legal analysis about the suitability of using ratepayer funds for this purpose seems sound," wrote Janice Thompson, CUB's advocacy director.
The program was approved in the city's 2018-19 budget, and the City Council will review an interagency agreement with Home Forward to administer it this week.
It is scheduled to launch in July.
The change comes as part of a broader overhaul and expansion of the utilities' aid programs.
The bureaus are increasing the crisis voucher amount available to families that need immediate help covering their bills, from $150 per year to $500 per year, and are providing a new discount for extremely low income families who make less than 30 percent of the area median income.
The budget for low income services will increase from $6 million to $9.3 million between the two bureaus.