State Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, encourages her colleagues to vote for a bill to extend Oregon’s safe harbor protections from eviction during a special legislative session on Dec. 13, 2021. (Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

SALEM - Thousands of Oregon renters who faced the threat of receiving an eviction notice for Christmas are safe after the Legislature voted Monday to extend a safe harbor period and allocate another $215 million toward stopping evictions.

Along with providing more money, the chairs of the House and Senate housing committees sent Secretary of State Shemia Fagan a letter Monday requesting her office’s Audits Division investigate the state agency responsible for handling the state’s rent assistance program. 

Lawmakers assumed in the spring that a 60-day respite from eviction proceedings would provide enough time for tenants and their landlords to receive the aid they requested. 

Instead, lawmakers returned to Salem on Monday with about 8,000 Oregon households in danger of eviction because the state hasn’t yet processed their applications. Legislators provided a bipartisan rescue, adding more money to the state’s rental assistance fund and barring evictions again for those waiting for that state help.

“We are here in the special session today because we think that no one should lose their homes while they’re waiting for rental assistance and help is on the way,” said state Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, and the chair of the House’s housing committee.

During the special session Monday, the Legislature also approved about $200 million in additional funding for drought relief, refugee resettlement and money to help county sheriffs in southern Oregon combat illegal marijuana farms owned by cartels. 

Housing aid

For tenants at risk of being evicted, the crux of the Legislature’s action Monday was extending the safe harbor period from 60 days – 90 in Multnomah County and parts of Washington County – to as long as it takes to process applications to the state for help. Tenants could apply for assistance until next June 30, but all protections against eviction would end Sept. 30. 

The Legislature approved $215 million to prevent evictions, including $100 million in direct assistance to landlords and tenants and $100 million to local eviction prevention programs. This kickstarts a transition back to dealing with housing instability as a standing problem, rather than a short-term emergency caused by Covid.

Lawmakers also gave the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department, the agency managing eviction relief, $5 million to beef up staffing and get money out the door more quickly. And they added $10 million to a fund meant to reimburse landlords for lost rent while their tenants are protected against eviction.

Applications for the most recent round of relief closed Dec. 1. Margaret Salazar, Housing and Community Services Department director, said she anticipated reopening the applications, with slight tweaks to make it easier, in about a month. 

State Sen. Tim Knopp, R- Bend and the Senate minority leader, was one of a few Republicans who voted for the safe harbor bill. He said he shared colleagues’ concern that a lack of housing supply is Oregon’s overarching problem. But Knopp said the relief act was a way to reimburse landlords and then return by June 30 to a status quo in which tenants must pay rent or risk eviction. 

“We have a problem,” Knopp said. “We do have the possibility of people being evicted. We have landlords who need to be made whole.” 

As the Legislature prepared to give more money to the Housing and Community Services Department, some legislators questioned whether the department was suited to handle the rental program. Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, said he was surprised to hear Salazar brag Saturday about the program’s success during a legislative hearing.

“I’ve heard it called a lot of things, but I’ve never heard it called successful until Saturday,” he said. 

The program was among the fastest in the country at disbursing federal rental assistance funds. Oregon stands to receive even more federal money next spring, after the U.S. Treasury claws back funds from states that didn’t spend their share and reallocates the money to states that have spent more.

But despite the department’s overall speed in allocating money, thousands of Oregonians who need aid have been waiting months to receive it. At least 8,000 households that applied for rental assistance months ago are at risk of eviction because their applications weren’t processed before their protection against being forced out expired.

Salazar told lawmakers her agency was working on getting money out faster. 

“We have been laser-focused on application processing,” she said. “We have doubled the amount of dollars out the door since we were before a legislative committee two months ago.”

Republican lawmakers, and Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, questioned why Salazar still had her job. Rep. Suzanne Weber, R-Tillamook, said she could have been convinced to vote for the relief if Gov. Kate Brown fired Salazar. She compared the circumstance to Brown’s decision to fire the head of the Oregon Employment Department in May 2020 after that department failed in the early days of the pandemic to get unemployment checks to tens of thousands of Oregonians who lost their jobs. 

Instead, Weber said, Brown called lawmakers back on Monday to toss money at a problem her administration started. Lawmakers will celebrate their “historic investment” in rent assistance while people continue to struggle, she said. 

“It’s as if this body has either no self-awareness or no shame,” Weber said. 

Rep. Mark Meek, D-Gladstone, said a focus on holding the department accountable won’t help Oregonians who could be evicted. 

“These families don’t care if somebody’s head rolls,” he said. “They’re still going to be homeless.” 

The two chief architects of the rent rescue plan wrote Monday to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan about the state agency. Fahey and Sen. Kayse Jama, D-Portland, wrote that they were deeply troubled by the department’s handling of the rent assistance program, including technical difficulties with software, and communication issues. 

“For thousands of Oregonians across the state, they have instead received delay after delay,” they wrote. “No matter the reason, this is unacceptable for the thousands living in fear they could lose their housing despite applying to the state for help.”

They requested a formal audit in the next year. Other legislators pushed to make the audit part of the legislation approved Monday, but Fahey said she and Jama were focused on the immediate assistance. 

Fagan spokeswoman Carla Axtman said the office will weigh Fahey’s and Jama’s request along with other audits under consideration. The office will release its plan for state audits in 2022 on Feb. 1. 

Less contentious were two issues Republicans pushed to include as the cost of their participation in the special session. 

The Legislature created a forgivable loan program for farmers and ranchers affected by the drought with $40 million, as well as $20 million for grants to local law enforcement agencies tackling illegal marijuana farms in southern Oregon.

The drought loans are a piece of a larger drought package that will also provide $12 million for wells and irrigation in the Klamath Basin, $10 million for farmworkers who missed work because of heat or smoke, $9.7 million for drought relief for Klamath Tribes, $6 million for deeper wells and $5 million to eradicate crickets and grasshoppers. 

Rural lawmakers said the drought relief was a start. House Minority Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson, whose family owns a Prineville ranch, said she sold many of her cows this year because she couldn’t get hay to feed them – and drought and fire will remain issues affecting the people who grow Oregon’s food.

The grants to help police illegal marijuana farms are also just a start, lawmakers said. They expect to spend time during the next legislative session in February debating policy.

The Oregon Farm Bureau was quick to praise the relief package, which will involve loans to farmers and producers that will be forgiven if they can show revenues impaired by Oregon’s recent disasters.

“Relief to producers impacted by this year’s natural disasters cannot come soon enough, and we look forward to working with the Oregon Department of Agriculture to get the direct assistance program up and running,” said Mary Anne Cooper of the Farm Bureau. “We particularly want to thank the governor for her diligent pursuit of this natural disaster package, and our advocates in the legislature for being such strong advocates for its passage.”

The session also saw another chapter in the yearlong standoff between Courtney and Sen. Dallas Heard, the Roseburg Republican who also chairs the Oregon Republican Party. Heard, a vocal opponent of Oregon’s mask mandates, grabbed headlines last December when he dramatically ripped off his mask on the Senate floor.

On Monday, he didn’t bring a mask with him at all. Heard stayed outside of the Senate chamber, popping in to flash a thumbs up or thumbs down on each vote, until the Senate had wrapped up its business and was preparing to adjourn. Then, he walked in and sat at his desk on the Senate floor.

Before the full Senate, Courtney asked him to put on a mask or leave, and Heard declined. Courtney’s last move before adjourning the Senate was sending the Senate sergeant-at-arms to escort Heard out, with orders not to return to the Capitol unless he wore a mask. 

RELATED COVERAGE:

With thousands facing eviction from their homes, Oregon Legislature coming to the rescue

Oregon farmers and ranchers likely to see $100 million in fresh state relief

Legislators on Monday will decide millions to help Afghans resettle in Oregon

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