The Oregon House of Representatives on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Three months ago, most legislators agreed to let the state’s eviction moratorium expire but provide a 60-day grace period as landlords and tenants waited on bureaucrats to process rental assistance claims. 

There were hundreds of millions of dollars in federal rent assistance available, Covid cases were decreasing and more than 2 million Oregonians had already been fully vaccinated. On June 25, the day the safe harbor law took effect, Gov. Kate Brown announced that she would end statewide mask mandates, capacity limits and physical distancing requirements. 

Oregonians were finally free to mingle barefaced in crowds, and the pandemic seemed like it was almost over.

Instead, the Delta variant hit, and hit hard. By the end of August, masks were again required indoors and out. Visions of a quick economic recovery in Oregon faded as case numbers grew, and requests for rental assistance poured in faster than state or local agencies could process them. 

“Obviously in June we did not anticipate what would happen with the Delta variant and what the impact of that would be on the trajectory of the pandemic and economic recovery, but also the need for rental assistance and how quickly our social safety net system would be overwhelmed with applications, particularly in the metro area,” said state Rep. Julie Fahey, a Eugene Democrat who chairs her chamber’s housing committee. 

As of Oct. 7, more than $80 million in emergency rental assistance has been paid out statewide. Another $53 million is set aside pending payment to tenants or landlords. 

Those funds, plus about $20 million spent on administrative fees, add up to about 75% of the $204 million Oregon received from the U.S. Treasury Department in its first round of aid to states. Another $156 million is available, but the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department expects to run through that remaining sum within the next six weeks.

Since the program launched in May, nearly 38,000 Oregon households have requested more than $266 million in aid. More than 13,000 additional applications remain incomplete. About 14,500 applications have been approved, while more than 24,000 are still being processed or need additional information from landlords or tenants.

Margaret Salazar, Oregon Housing and Community Services executive director, recently wrote to the Treasury Department that she will request more federal assistance as soon as applications are available in mid-October.  

“Oregonians desperately need additional assistance now more than ever during a global health pandemic,” she wrote. 

In the meantime, legislators and community activists are looking for ways to halt evictions. 

The safe harbor law bought additional time, but tenants who first received eviction notices and applied for help in June or July are rapidly running out of time if their applications haven’t yet been processed.

“We have to be able to hold two ideas in our head at the same time,” Fahey said. “Oregon is doing better than most other states at distributing this funding, and also that doesn’t help the people who are still waiting, who applied months ago for their assistance and are at risk of eviction. We’re both doing a good job relative to other states and it’s not enough to protect people from eviction.”

Sybil Hebb, director of legislative advocacy at the Oregon Law Center, told a legislative panel last week that state and county agencies and community organizations that help tenants are working around the clock – but it’s not enough to stave off evictions. 

“Thousands of tenants remain unprotected from the risk of eviction despite having applied for the new rent assistance benefits in a timely manner,” Hebb said. 

In other cases, renters and landlords who could have received help were unable to complete applications or didn’t know the aid was available. Fahey said she expects updates this week from Oregon Housing and Community Services about changes to the application system to make it more accessible to people who don’t have computers or have trouble responding to complex requests on the state form.   

Fahey and state Sen. Kayse Jama, the Portland Democrat who chairs the Senate’s housing committee, also wrote to Brown last week to request that she use an executive order to extend the 60-day grace period to 120 days. After Brown replied that she didn’t have the constitutional authority to do so, they began discussing with House and Senate leaders the possibility of returning in a special session.

The Legislature can call itself into a special session if at least one representative and one senator request it and the majority of both chambers agree. Alternatively, Brown can call lawmakers into special session “on extraordinary occasions.” Most recently, she did this for a September session on redistricting and a December session on Covid relief. 

Brown spokesman Charles Boyle said the governor’s office is still discussing housing solutions with legislative leaders. The law passed in the spring set a specific time period of 60 days and didn’t grant Brown the authority to extend it, unlike a separate law that allowed her to extend a moratorium on foreclosures. 

“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,” Boyle said in an email. 

Tenant activists for several weeks have been calling on legislators and Brown to hold a special session on eviction protection. Kim McCarty, executive director of the Community Alliance of Tenants, said tenants and nonprofit agencies that provide aid to unhoused people need a straightforward eviction moratorium.

“Our social service agencies are not equipped to be able to help anyone if they’re displaced from their home at this magnitude,” she said. “So, from our perspective, the only solution is to seek a solution that keeps people in their current housing, and we think that that can happen in the most expedited way with an eviction moratorium.” 

Landlords are already evicting Oregon tenants for not paying rent, and many of the tenants McCarty’s group works with aren’t prevailing in court despite the safe harbor. Some had their 60 days expire before state help arrived, some never knew they were eligible and some tenants were in despair and didn’t show up to court, resulting in automatic defaults, she said. 

“These are all completely preventable evictions, if those resources from the federal government would just get into the hands of tenants and landlords for back rent,” she said.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: [email protected] Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.