More than 10,000 Oregonians have applied for rental assistance, had their applications accepted and yet, due to the state’s inability to process applications quickly enough, are at risk of losing their homes.
Gov. Kate Brown has called lawmakers back to Salem this Monday with the hopes of fixing the issue and ensuring people stuck in the bureaucratic backlog don’t lose their homes this winter.
Here’s a look at the problem and the proposed solution:
What are lawmakers hoping to accomplish by returning to Salem on Dec. 13?
Earlier this year, lawmakers passed what’s been called a “safe harbor’ bill. A person at risk of losing their home because they couldn’t afford rent, could apply for rental assistance.
Once their application was acknowledged by the state, they were given a 60-day window in which they would not be evicted for not paying rent. The thinking was that this would give the state time to process the application and send money to the tenant’s landlord, while also giving the tenant a respite from living in fear of being evicted.
But because so many people applied, it took the state and local agencies who hand out the federal rental assistance dollars, longer than 60 days to handle most cases.
That meant many Oregonians were at risk of eviction for not paying their rent even though the state had the money and was working to get it to the landlord.
Lawmakers said the main goal of this special session is to extend the safe harbor period to ensure people already in the pipeline for help aren’t evicted while they are waiting. Democrats also want to funnel more money into the rental assistance fund, which is set to dry up barring more money from the federal government.
Why is there such a backlog of rental applications?
Housing officials said a high stream of applications made it difficult for them to catch up. The agency charged with oversight of the rental assistance program, Oregon Housing and Community Services, had to close the web portal for six weeks beginning Dec. 1 to clear a backlog of more than 30,000 applications.
As a result, Oregon Housing and Community Services stopped accepting new applications. Housing officials said once they worked through the backlog, there would no longer be enough funding to help additional applicants.
At one point, the state was receiving approximately 3,000 applications per week.
Is more money coming to help renters?
The two Democrats leading this housing push — Rep. Julie Fahey of Eugene, and Sen. Kayse Jama of Portland — are seeking to use $215 million of state and leftover American Rescue Plan Act funds to keep people housed.
Approximately $100 million would go to the state’s community action agencies to create a more local network of eviction prevention services. Another $100 million would go to the state’s rent assistance fund.
The state’s housing agency will receive $5 million to reimburse the department for costs it has incurred processing the high volume of applications. And an additional $10 million has been put on the table to guarantee landlords are paid should their tenant be denied assistance.
Oregon housing officials have said once they work through the backlog of applications, the $289 million pot of federal pandemic relief money dedicated to rental aid will be gone. They plan to request more help from the federal government in the spring, but it’s unclear if or how much the state would receive.
How many people are getting evicted right now because they can’t pay their rent?
The Oregon Law Center’s Eviction Defense Project is tracking evictions for nonpayment of rent and attempting to get in front of every case they can to let people know about the state’s emergency rent assistance program and the aid available to them.
According to the project’s data, there have been 2,284 nonpayment evictions filed in Oregon between July — when the state’s eviction moratorium ended — and November.
The number of eviction filings has steadily increased each month, from 361 in July to 565 in November.
Landlord-tenant attorneys say as much as 40% of these cases ended in circumstances that could have been prevented.
Do Republicans support this approach?
Republicans — who are in the minority in both chambers — don’t have the votes to stop anything, but they can deny quorum.
That means, to pass anything into law, Democrats need some Republicans to show up. Republicans in the House are particularly wary of their counterparts, and a lack of trust between the two parties has made negotiations more difficult lately.
They’ve pushed back on the idea that a special legislative session is necessary. Instead, Republicans called for lawmakers to convene a smaller subset of the legislature called the emergency board, which can allocate money when the Legislature is not in session, but cannot pass policy changes.
Democrats are steadfast in their support for a special session, saying that the extension of eviction protections is a key piece of this proposal.
Has a deal been reached?
Yes, a bipartisan deal announced Friday outlined what the two sides are agreeing to when they arrive in Salem Monday.
The agreement includes an extension of eviction protections through at least June 30, 2022, for those who are waiting for their rental assistance application to be processed.
The deal also includes nearly $100 million to help farmers and ranchers reeling from drought conditions; $25 million for the state to beef up its policing of illegal marijuana grow operations in Jackson and Josephine counties; and $18 million to support the state’s network of resettlement agencies, which are preparing for the arrival of 1,200 Afghan refugees over the next year.
Oregon’s recent favorable economic forecasts and remaining federal aid money have provided the legislature with flexibility to respond to this crisis and others currently facing the state.
Including the rent assistance money, lawmakers could approve a total of $400 million in spending during this special session.
Senate Republicans and Democrats in both chambers have voiced support for the proposed agreement. House Republicans did not immediately make it clear whether they would back the proposal.
How long will this special session last?
It’s unclear. But lawmakers are hoping they can contain the session to one day.
If Republicans don’t allow parliamentary rules to be suspended so that the legislature can move more quickly, the session could take as long as five days.
If the bipartisan agreement includes a deal to suspend rules, Democratic lawmakers leading this charge have all the necessary paperwork in order, and the session could be wrapped on Monday.