Ridgeland Apartments on Center Street Northeast on Jan. 12. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
State officials said Tuesday Oregon would keep its emergency rental assistance program open a week later than planned after the federal Department of Treasury committed late Monday to giving the state an additional $16 million.
The program was intended to help Oregonians struggling to pay rent due to the pandemic. More than a thousand households in Marion County who applied await payment, and others who are eligible and apply by 11:59 p.m. on March 21 will be paid.
State officials previously said more tenants wouldn’t be able to get help through the program as the state would soon run out of all available funding.
Andrea Bell, acting executive director for Oregon Housing and Community Services, Gov. Kate Brown and Oregon’s federal delegation recently wrote letters to the federal Treasury Department requesting more funds for rental assistance.
The incoming $16 million will help around 2,200 additional households across the state “remain stably housed,” said Jill Smith, the agency’s interim director of housing stabilization, in a Tuesday morning news release.
“Our message to U.S. Treasury remains loud and clear: if other states have money they can’t use – send those dollars to Oregon,” she wrote.
Jimmy Jones, executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, said the additional funds were encouraging. “There is still enormous need and all the tenant protections are expiring. Thousands continue to apply and heavy percentages of them are zero income households,” he said in a text.
According to state data, last updated Feb. 16, nearly 3,300 Marion County households have received assistance from the state, totaling nearly $23 million for rent and utilities. More than 1,100 applications haven’t been processed, meaning they await an eligibility determination and payment. Those outstanding applications total about $12.2 million.
In Polk County, around 600 households had applications paid, receiving about $4.3 million total. Nearly 280 applications totaling about $2.8 million hadn’t been processed.
“It had to happen at some point,” Jones said regarding the state’s plan to close the program. “At some point, the number of people who have applied would have exceeded the resources available.”
Jones said the average request for rental assistance since the portal reopened was for around $9,000, and it doesn’t take long for them to total tens of millions of dollars.
He said the program is winding down at a difficult time for workers and people in poverty.
“I’m a little bit concerned about it, because this has been a grand social experiment on a large scale,” he said. “It’s the first time we’ve ever had this kind of rental support for low-income individuals at this scope in the state.”
The national Consumer Price Index, which measures the cost of household goods, showed inflation was up 7.9% in the 12 months ending with February, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
“Child care is slow to bounce back and incredibly expensive. The rental market is horrible at the moment,” Jones said. “This is a sort of dangerous time for people living on the margin, because the expense of everything has just gone up and that leaves very little room for error sometimes.”
The state stopped taking applications for rent help for all of December and most of January, but temporarily reopened its portal for rental assistance on Jan. 26 after the state Legislature allocated $100 million to aid tenants facing eviction, the news release said.
Tenants whose applications are incomplete when the portal closes have until March 28 to complete them.
Smith said at a March 7 press briefing that the agency doesn’t plan on continuing any form of emergency rental assistance after the program closes, and they will instead focus on their five-year statewide housing plan published in 2019.
Included are goals of building up to 25,000 affordable homes for rent and at least 1,000 additional permanent supportive housing units by 2023. Permanent supportive housing provides affordable leases with social, health and employment services for people with less than 30% of the area median income and is intended to serve people who are homeless, institutionalized or at risk of becoming either.
Jones said in November that the state rolled out its rental assistance funding slowly due to problems with the application. Most of those issues were resolved over time by trial and error, he said, but structural barriers remained for people who have disabilities or language barriers, or those with older smartphones and limited Wi-Fi access.
The state’s rental assistance program was included in a list of audits planned for this year that Secretary of State Shemia Fagan announced Feb. 10.
“I feel a lot better about where we are as a state. OHCS has, despite their labor pains getting there, managed to get most of that money spent down,” Jones said following the state’s announcement that it would close the program. “I know the speed and the frustrations that people had with it are not forgotten, but I think we’re getting to a better place.”
After the state application portal closes, Oregonians can still apply for a separate set of rental assistance that went to local governments including Marion County, which got about $10.4 million.
County spokesman Jon Heynen said there is about $4 million remaining from those funds, which expire in September. After they run out, the county will have a second round of $8.3 million for rental assistance available.
Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.
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