Flags are flown at half-staff at the Oregon State Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 24 to remember the 500,000 Americans who have died of Covid. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Jimmy Jones, the executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, is in a race to get help to needy people in Marion and Polk counties before they get evicted.

He’s hoping a bill being considered in the Oregon Legislature will give him more time to do it. 

Speaking before the Oregon Senate Housing and Development Committee last week, Jones said his agency has been tasked with moving an “enormous amount of rental assistance” to people in Marion and Polk counties who’ve had their lives upended by the pandemic. 

Last year, his agency provided more than $8 million in emergency rental and energy assistance to 1,440 people in the two counties. There are now 1,440 people on waitlists for help, and he anticipates moving $30 million in rental assistance this year, he said. 

But he said there will be “bottlenecks, barriers, access issues and inefficiencies” for any large rollout of resources. 

“So we need to delay the evictions,” said Jones. “We run the risk of undermining our own plans for rental assistance as one hand of the state undoes what the other hand of the state has labored so hard to make happen.”

Jones was one of hundreds of people who testified on Senate Bill 282, which will extend the state’s moratorium on residential evictions for nonpayment of rent through February 28, 2022. 

The pandemic-induced downturn has had a disproportionate impact on low-wage workers who are more likely to rent. The most recent U.S. Census figures show that 10% of Oregonians are behind on rent payments. Another 55% of tenants say they are very or somewhat likely to be evicted within the next two months. In Salem, 47% of the city’s housing is renter occupied. 

In December, the Legislature extended the eviction moratorium to June 2021. Proponents of the bill say it’s needed to prevent a wave of evictions while renters access financial assistance or earn income to get caught up on rent owed. 

The state recently launched its $150 million Landlord Compensation Fund, and on Wednesday Congress passed the federal $1.9 trillion American Recovery Act that’ll direct more relief money to Oregon. Proponents of the bills say Oregon tenants are at risk of losing their housing before that money arrives. 

But landlords say the legislation will be another burden after already having forgone rent payments since Gov. Kate Brown issued her initial eviction moratorium in March. Landlords also worry about the state’s ability to deliver promised relief and the legislation will create loopholes for unscrupulous tenants. 

“The changes that you propose in the tenant laws right now are only going to help bad tenants get away with bad behavior,” Kathleen Ashley, the president of the Salem Rental Housing Association, told the committee last week.  

She took issue with a proposed amendment to the bill that would create a presumption of retaliation if a landlord evicts a tenant while they are behind on rent. While the charge of retaliation can be rebutted by the landlord, it still creates legal liabilities. She said the bill could let tenants skip paying rent even when they have the money. 

Other landlords from Salem raised concerns about the bill. Douglas and Deborah Schmitt, a retired couple who own a 10-unit apartment building in southeast Salem, submitted testimony saying they depend on rent from tenants. They worry they’ll lose the property to their bank if they can’t collect rent. 

Other landlords from Salem and elsewhere complained that they won’t have money to make repairs or be able to evict disruptive tenants. They’ve also expressed concern that the bill would limit landlords’ ability to restrict the number of occupants and guests in their property. 

The state opened the first round of the Landlord Compensation Fund last week to help landlords recoup rent they’ve missed out on while the eviction moratorium has been in effect. But the fund only covers up to 80% of unpaid rent and not all applications will be funded. Multiple landlords reported difficulties navigating the application process. 

“I spent the last night and most of this morning taking calls from panicked housing providers about the malfunctioning landlord compensation fund portal,” said Michael Havlik, the deputy executive director for Tigard-based Multifamily NW, during the hearing. He added, “No one has the confidence that their application was successfully submitted.”

Kim McCarty, executive director of the Oregon Community Alliance of Tenants said that national statistics show the burden of back rent has disproportionately fallen on minorities and people of color. While Oregon’s economy is improving, she mentioned how the most recent state economic forecast predicted job prospects for low-income Oregonians to remain “dim.” 

“No Oregon renter, regardless of immigration status, should be evicted or burdened with years of debt for rent that they were unable to pay during the pandemic through no fault of their own,” she said. 

Salem resident and mother of three Christy Hernandez submitted testimony saying that she hasn’t been able to work and struggled to pay bills during the pandemic. She said the moratorium has kept her family off the streets and she needs more time to pay back the rent she owes.  

Now she worries as the current moratorium is slated to expire this summer. 

“I’m afraid for what will happen when July comes if we can’t pay all of our back rent,” she said. 

 Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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