Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021. The capitol was completed in 1938 and is topped with a gilded bronze statue of the Oregon Pioneer.

Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021. The capitol was completed in 1938 and is topped with a gilded bronze statue of the Oregon Pioneer.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

The leaders of the Oregon Legislature’s joint housing committee are asking Gov. Kate Brown to issue an executive order to extend protections against evictions for renters who are struggling to make rent payments.

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In a letter sent Wednesday, Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, and Sen. Kayse Jama, D-North Clackamas/SE Portland, notified Brown that the threat of eviction is imminent for more than 12,000 Oregon households that have applied for federal rental assistance but have not yet received it.

Fahey and Jama want Brown to extend the statewide 60-day pause on evictions to 120 days for those struggling to make rent payments due to economic conditions caused by the pandemic, or to extend the pause only in counties with large backlogs of unprocessed applications for assistance.

But in a response from the governor’s office late Wednesday, deputy communications director Charles Boyle said that what Fahey and Jama have asked her to do isn’t possible under Oregon’s Constitution, and only the Legislature has the authority to amend laws that they have passed.

“The Governor continues to work with legislators to explore potential solutions, but at this time any solutions to address issues surrounding evictions must be enacted in partnership with the Legislature as a part of the legislative process,” Boyle said.

Back in May, lawmakers followed up on executive action taken by Brown in the spring of 2020 to halt evictions during the pandemic. They passed a bill extending the moratorium on nonpayment rental evictions between April 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021, until Feb. 28, 2022.

But before the session ended in June, tenant advocates and housing attorneys raised the alarm that thousands of Oregonians were still facing the threat of eviction despite the protections allowing them more time to pay their back rent.

As those initial protections expired, lawmakers passed another set of safeguards giving anyone who could prove they’d applied for federal emergency rental assistance through the state could receive a 60-day pause on eviction proceedings, and 90 days for residents of Multnomah County by an act of its local commission.

Unfortunately many are still waiting either to be paid, and many more for their application to even be processed as the clock expires for many who took advantage of that safe harbor period back in July and August.

While many Oregonians are now back to work and have the ability to begin paying their back rent by the February 2022 deadline, they are still in need of assistance to pay rent they’ve begun accumulating since repayment began in July.

“Faster processing will not be enough to protect the thousands of tenants who have already run out of time in their safe harbor period,” Fahey and Jama wrote. “Oregon Chief Justice (Martha Walters) has already acted to the extent of her authority to extend eviction court deadlines and encourage flexibility. But our providers and systems simply need more time to get funds into Oregonians’ hands and prevent evictions.”

The request by Fahey and Jama follows an update lawmakers received Monday from the beleaguered Oregon Housing and Community Services department, which is tasked with administering the state’s rent assistance and landlord compensation programs.

They also heard from members of Oregon’s legal community working to help protect Oregonians from being evicted, as well as staff members from the community action agencies working on the ground to help process applications and spread the word that this assistance is available

Lawmakers learned that while the state has made major strides to improve the pace at which checks reach Oregonians who need them, that’s “cold comfort” for the thousands whose applications remain unprocessed and face eviction.

An inefficient process

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Leaders within Oregon Housing and Community Services were under pressure to get an historic amount of federal assistance out the door as quickly as possible, but technology issues with the Allita portal used for central intake of applications and unclear guidance from the federal government caused massive delays early in the process.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury requested state programs show they’ve distributed at least 65% of the funds they’d been allocated by Sept. 30 or risk that money being reclaimed and given to programs elsewhere in the nation that are working more efficiently.

According to OHCS, they’ve met that benchmark thanks to some flexibility in the guidelines issued by the Treasury and are not in danger of losing their funding.

OHCS Executive Director Margaret Salazar told lawmakers Monday that Oregon has either paid out or obligated — meaning promise of payment — nearly $124 million of the $204 million the state was allocated.

Salazar said the state will likely ask for even more federal money as the state’s total calculated need now tops $266 million. But for now the focus remains on catching up on the massive backlog of unprocessed applications

According to OHCS’ rent assistance dashboard, only 10,720 of the 37,772 completed applications the state has received have been paid out, or approximately 28% .

Salazar told lawmakers that it could be 10 to 13 weeks before OHCS is able to catch up on its backlog of applications from renters who are at least 60 days past the start of their safe harbor period, but incoming applications numbering between 1,000 and 2,000 per week are only adding to the pile

“If we continue to see (that volume) of new applications each week, funds will be fully requested in three to six weeks,” Salazar said. “That means we would have to shut down that application portal, and tenants wouldn’t be able to access that safe harbor period that you fought for.”

Salazar said OHCS expects its community partners and a private contractor — Public Private Partnerships, LLC — to help complete around 2,500 applications per week.

In Multnomah County, 4,210 applications have not been paid after 90 days. Statewide, 7,700 applications have not been paid after 60 days, and 3,700 applications have not been paid after 120 days.

“While funding has started being distributed more quickly in recent weeks, this progress is not enough to prevent evictions for tenants who have been waiting months for assistance,” the letter said. “When a family is evicted, it negatively impacts their physical health, their mental health, their children’s education, their ability to keep a job, and their long-term well-being. Even a short period of becoming unhoused or housing instability can do long-term, generational harm to families and communities.”

Making improvements

In their letter, Fahey and Jama also requested that OHCS make improvements to the Allita 360 web portal that has caused headaches for tenants and back-end staff alike. They suggest the application move toward a more tenant-friendly and accessible process for those who don’t have computer access or whose first language is not English.

They’re also urging the state and its partners to take advantage of flexibilities that the federal government is allowing states to help speed this process.

That includes allowing applicants to self attest that the financial information they’re providing is accurate rather than providing documentation in an attempt to remove barriers which have made the process overly burdensome for low-income families.

Fahey told OPB Tuesday that while much of the focus in this effort has been on improving the speed and efficiency with which the state is processing applications, messaging also remains a major problem as thousands of people remain unaware these protections and assistance dollars are available to them.

“The other piece of this, the outreach and communication, making sure people know about the assistance and protections, has not had as much attention as it should,” Fahey said. “There are some success stories in doing that outreach, but, generally, I worry that too many are leaving their apartments before they even get to the court process.”

Sybil Hebb is an attorney with the Oregon Law Center, where a coalition of lawyers have established a statewide eviction defense project aimed at responding to this crisis. Hebb said Fahey is right to assume there are vast numbers of Oregonians who are unaware of their options, and simply self evict before the process has begun in earnest.

“Nonpayment eviction court cases are just the tip of the iceberg,” Hebb said. “There is widespread displacement that’s happening across communities as tenants lose hope that they will ever receive protections.”

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