Some Salem renters got a notice on their door starting early summer, advising them the eviction moratorium had come to an end on June 30, 2021. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Oregonians struggling to pay rent faced barriers to getting assistance and slow payments through a $15 million rental assistance program in Marion and Polk counties intended to help save tenants from being evicted.

With most of the state’s funding already gone, local service providers say the number of households requesting assistance may soon eclipse what’s available.

Since the Covid pandemic began, the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency received several pots of federal and state money to help people pay their rent. A series of statewide moratoriums banning evictions bought tenants time to make up their due payments. The latest moratorium ended on June 30.

The state legislature passed SB 278, effective June 25, which gave renters a “safe harbor” period where landlords couldn’t evict if they hadn’t paid rent or take them to court for 60 days after they provide documentation showing they’d applied for rent assistance. 

Jimmy Jones, executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, said the trouble started when the state got $203 million from the federal government in May through the Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

The agency began pulling money from the program July 1 to distribute in Marion and Polk counties. Rental assistance was run through a statewide portal managed by Oregon Housing and Community Services.

Jones said the state rolled out the rent assistance program slower than previous ones due to problems with the application, which printed out is 27 pages long. “That creates an enormous barrier,” he said.

So does requiring anyone who wants to apply for the money to go through an online portal, he said, with many Marion and Polk county residents living in areas with poor Wi-Fi.

Oregon Housing and Community Services' application software also scored applicants based on a points system that didn’t prioritize people facing imminent eviction, he said.

“You add all that up together and what happens is that you get people with a little bit higher self-sufficiency levels being able to access the funds, and people who are in greater need, who have more barriers, who have language issues or technological issues, they're the ones who struggle the most,” he said. “You get all these sort of inefficiencies in the system, and I worry that the money was not really, in the end, distributed in the best and most equitable way because of that.”

There are also people who didn’t know help was available to them.

Ashley Hamilton, program director for The ARCHES Project, said their staff are in court every time there is a forcible entry and detainer hearing in Marion and Polk counties to help get people facing eviction connected with assistance.

“We have not had anyone decline the offer of help,” Hamilton said. “Everyone is very eager to participate, but for the most part, they didn't even know this program was available to them.”

As of Oct. 8, Marion and Polk counties have received 5,938 applications for the Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program, requesting a total of $40.2 million.

Around 85% of those requests are from Marion County residents, and Hamilton said the lack of Polk County applicants likely points to rural communities lacking internet access.

She said the average payment to each household ranges between $7,000 and $7,500, though it is not unusual to see requests upwards of $15,000 to $20,000 for total owed rent.

As of Wednesday, the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency has committed to funding 1,734 households, totaling $12.8 million. Hamilton said the agency estimates the Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance program will assist 2,276 households in Marion and Polk counties based on current data.

Oregon Housing and Community Services has access to an additional set of funding through the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance program. Hamilton said she is confident Marion and Polk counties will receive more funding, but when and in what amount that will come is unclear.

“At some point, I do believe that the requests for assistance will actually be more than the total assistance that's available,” Jones said.

T.J. Putnam, executive director of Family Promise of the Mid-Willamette Valley, said Friday that the nonprofit had 34 families reach out for emergency assistance in the past month. That’s 121 people, including 68 children, who are at risk of eviction or losing their home, or those who are homeless.

Over the summer, the organization saw a 25% increase in families seeking emergency assistance, he said.

“We’re seeing people who haven't been able to pay their rent,” Putnam said. “Currently, they're precariously housed. They're nervous that they know that they haven't paid it, they know that the landlord needs their money. And sooner or later, that's going to come to a head and housing instability will happen.”

Putnam said he knows of a local family of four who were asked to pay around $1,500 rent with a $5,000 deposit.

“To ask a low-income family to pay $6,500 is how landlords are trying to protect their assets right now,” he said. “I could see it from their point of view, but it's something that's not sustainable for families experiencing homelessness.”

Not being able to afford housing is the number one reason people become homeless in the community, Putnam said.

He called the various federal and state funding programs for rental assistance during the pandemic a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity for families with housing instability to afford housing.

“Because of that, there were less families sleeping on the street,” he said. “The eviction moratorium worked. The big issue now is being sure we get the payments out to the landlords that can keep people housed.”

Deborah Imse, executive director of the landlord association Multifamily NW, said the application software used by Oregon Housing and Community Services to distribute money to landlords from the state's Landlord Compensation Fund “completely broke.”

“It is not true that the system worked during the moratorium,” Imse said. “One of the reasons we're where we are today is because the system required so many workarounds and so many changes that it early on prevented the money from getting out the door quickly.”

Oregon Housing and Community Services thought it fixed those issues, she said, but once it started using the software for emergency assistance this summer, it became clear the issues lingered and required community action agencies across Oregon to try to find more workarounds.

Imse said the state’s communication to let tenants know rental assistance is available and where they were in the application process, and to let housing providers know they had a tenant who was trying to get assistance, was “almost non-existent.”

Many landlords with smaller rental properties also haven’t earned enough during the pandemic to pay their mortgage, she said.

“In many cases, the market’s so hot right now for single-family homes, they just got out of the rental business, which means we're reducing supply,” she said. “We already were short on supply prior to the pandemic, and them getting out and selling their rental housing is only going to exacerbate the situation.”

Imse said evictions for non-payment of rent are extremely low compared to pre-pandemic numbers. “But at some point, the fact that the landlord doesn't know whether their resident is applying for rental assistance, doesn't know when the state will get that money to them, they're going to start evicting folks,” she said.

Sen. Kayse Jama, D-Portland, and State Rep. Julie Fahey, D-West Eugene, in a joint statement on Oct. 6 pleaded with Gov. Kate Brown to take further action to protect vulnerable Oregonians from becoming unhoused.

They said the passing of SB 282, which extended the grace period for paying rent costs incurred between April 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021 to Feb. 28, 2022, and SB 278, which set the 60-day “safe harbor” period, were expected to provide the protections necessary for renter and landlord stability as payments were distributed. “Over the last four months, it has become increasingly clear that distribution is not keeping up with our expectations,” they wrote in the statement.

Becky Straus, managing attorney for the Oregon Law Center’s Eviction Defense Project, said around 12,000 households have passed their 60-day safe harbor window and are still waiting for their rent assistance to get processed.

She said Eviction Defense Project staff are concerned that an increase in evictions in Oregon is looming.

“Right now, we're very concerned because the rent assistance processing has not moved as quickly as the legislative protections rely on them to move.” Straus said. “So, we're starting to see certainly evictions hit the courts, but we know that what we're seeing in the courts is just the tip of the iceberg of the number of people who are being displaced because their rent assistance didn't get processed on time."

Straus said the only solution to help tenants maintain stability is extending the timeframe they are protected. 

In their statement, Jama and Fahey asked the governor to speed up rental distribution by making the application more tenant-friendly and accessible for non-English speakers and people who don’t have access to a computer. They asked her to prioritize the oldest applications and those most at risk of eviction.

They also said Brown should issue an executive order extending the 60-day safe harbor timeline to 120 days statewide.

But Imse said she learned from Multifamily NW’s lobbyist that “there is not interest or appetite” in the Senate to have a special session to extend protections.

With eviction moratoriums gone, Oregon renters are facing another challenge in the courts.

Straus said landlords are "negotiating" people who don't have legal representation out of their homes even if they should have access to rent assistance. Some tenants fail to appear in court for eviction hearings and get a default judgement against them before finding out they had a court date, while others have appeared in court and signed “stipulated agreements,” either agreeing to move out or commit to payment plans with fewer protections than the safe harbor would have allowed them.

The Eviction Defense Project is sending letters to every tenant found on court dockets with an eviction notice to let them know there are free attorneys available to help. 

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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