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Economy and Finance

Thousands Of Oregonians Await Pandemic Rent Assistance Money As Unprecedented Eviction Wave Looms

Oregon Capitol.JPG
Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB
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A growing number of evictions statewide is causing concern for Oregon renters who are struggling to get the money they need to remain housed as the state tries to ramp up the pace at which it’s distributing federal dollars to keep people in their homes.

Technology struggles, burdensome levels of paperwork and staffing shortages have plagued the state as it works to distribute rental assistance dollars.

Technology struggles, burdensome levels of paperwork and staffing shortages have plagued the state as it works to distribute rental assistance dollars.

A growing number of evictions statewide is causing concern for Oregon renters who are struggling to get the money they need to remain housed as the state tries to ramp up the pace at which it’s distributing federal dollars to keep people in their homes.

More than $204 million in federal dollars is currently available to Oregon residents, but the state has approved just $38 million of that particular pot to reach just over 6,200 households in 2021, according to Oregon Housing and Community Services.

The United States Department of the Treasury announced that it hopes to see states distribute approximately 65% of their federally allocated rent assistance dollars by Sept. 30. Oregon has only distributed about 18% with just two weeks until that deadline arrives.

After Sept. 30, the Treasury Department is allowed to take back funds that were allocated to states in excess, but it is not required to. As that benchmark quickly approaches, more than one-third of 33,000 Oregon households that have completed applications are still awaiting initial review, as state, county and local community action agencies struggle with technological issues that continue to slow the process with thousands statewide facing the threat of eviction. Nearly 12,000 applications remain incomplete, and another 6,400 require a tenant response before they can move forward.

State and local employees working with tenants have reported that the process is somewhat burdensome, particularly for low-income families who might not have access to documentation such as recent pay stubs or a written rental agreement from their landlord. Language barriers, technology gaps and disability issues have also contributed to a large number of incomplete applications and a slow rollout.

The backlog of incomplete applications has sparked a massive outreach campaign by OHCS, eviction defense lawyers and local agencies to spur households to complete them or respond to additional requests for documentation and other hiccups causing delay.

Statewide, the numbers paint a picture of a system that has picked up the pace in
recent weeks, but some counties are faring much better than others. In
Lane County, for example, more than 50% of the county’s nearly 2,200 completed applications for emergency rent assistance have been approved for $6.7 million in funding. Just 18% of Lane County’s applications await initial review.

Smaller jurisdictions such as Clatsop and Columbia counties have also had more success, with 62% and 77%, respectively, of their applications being approved for funding, according to an OHCS dashboard that tracks where applications are in the process and how many have been approved.

But some agencies dispersing assistance dollars, such as those in the Portland metro area and pandemic-ravaged Jackson County in southern Oregon, continue to lag behind.

Despite Jackson County having 96% of the 1,727 applications it has received marked as complete, only 116 households have been approved for funding, or about 8%. Approximately 48% of the county’s applications sit in limbo as the state awaits a response from tenants.

Of Clackamas County’s 2,647 applications, only 75 households have been
approved, while 55% of the county’s applications are pending initial review.

Washington County has received 6,177 applications with only 151 approved for payment. More than 2,400 — approximately 52% — households there await an initial review of their application.

Multnomah County is only slightly better with a little more than 1,100 applications approved from 16,125 applicants.

Defending Oregon Renters

Despite the vast amount of assistance dollars available to Oregonians, the state’s legal community remains deeply concerned that Oregon is headed for a mass eviction cliff in the coming months as several rounds of protections begin to expire.

At the beginning of 2021, civil legal assistance attorney Emily Rena-Dozier of the nonprofit Oregon Law Center and colleague Becky Straus initiated a project to track all evictions filed throughout the state.

As of Sept. 7, Oregon has seen approximately 4,080 residential evictions filed statewide, according to Rena-Dozier’s count.

About 1,661 of those were filed in the months of July and August, and attorneys say that’s a sign that this problem is only starting to snowball.

A series of moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures enacted by the state legislature and extended by Governor Kate Brown and local jurisdictions — as well as by the federal government — have greatly reduced the number of residential evictions in 2021, but the threat remains real for thousands of Oregonians who are behind on rent payments.

Rena-Dozier said that pre-pandemic in 2019 there were more than 18,000 eviction cases in the state, but that number isn’t broken down by residential, commercial and post-foreclosure evictions. She guesses that a majority of those in 2019 were residential.

“People are terrified, and they’re confused. And it’s completely understandable,” Rena-Dozier told OPB. “There’s just so much uncertainty and misinformation, and people don’t really know who to trust or how to get a hold of help.”

As the situation has intensified, attorneys at the Oregon Law Center launched the Eviction Defense Project, a statewide effort to provide every tenant in Oregon facing eviction with legal representation and resources to remain housed.

According to Rena-Dozier, the project came to fruition as she and colleagues reviewed eviction filings statewide and found that many of them were seemingly illegal or didn’t follow proper procedure. She puts that number at about 40%.

She says the fact that a vast majority of Oregon tenants do not have legal representation, these seemingly illegal eviction filings were often ending up with default judgments — rulings where one party failed to take action — because tenants didn’t have the resources to fight them, or they simply gave up and decided to move out.

That discovery led the Oregon Law Center to partner with Legal Aid Services of Oregon and to hire 17 new staff members dedicated to tracking evictions and intercepting tenants who might previously have thought their case was a lost cause.

“We’re trying to get as many tenants represented as we possibly can,” Rena-Dozier said. “From my perspective, there’s always been a shortage of attorneys. There’s not a large number of landlord-tenant attorneys in the state, but more and more people are getting involved now.”

According to Rena-Dozier, the legal community, as well as state and local governments, have started to view evictions as less of a personal problem between landlords and tenants. They’re now seen as more of a broad social issue with far-reaching implications
for Oregonians that affect educational outcomes for students of families that have been evicted, as well as impacting public health, especially during the pandemic.

“It’s kind of a slow-motion crisis now, but it’s just going to get bigger,” she said.

Ramping Up The Pace

Margaret Salazar, OHCS executive director, told OPB that the state has greatly improved the pace at which it is pushing out dollars to keep Oregonians housed.

The most recent report from OHCS shows the flow of emergency rent assistance dollars into the hands of landlords seeking to evict a tenant has quadrupled since the beginning of August when a flurry of media reports revealed scathing reviews of the state’s process and software vendor Allita 360 — which created the centralized web portal to intake applications — by county agencies, advocates of tenants rights and other organizations.

In the past eight months, OHCS has pushed out more than $145 million from several different pots for landlords and tenants alike. To compare, in 2019 the state dispersed only $17 million in similar funding.

“This program is a brand new federal program that had to quickly be launched
and stood up in the midst of a labor shortage and operationalized in a matter of months,” Salazar told OPB. “Because this is a federal program, it has complexities. It has requirements.”

Salazar attributes the state’s increase in the number of applications being processed to three specific actions OHCS has taken over the past month and a half. The first was the hiring of vendor Public Partnerships, LLC, a Boston-based firm that has taken over contractual duties to process more than 8,500 applications within Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties where some of the highest volumes of demand are seen.

According to Salazar, since PPL began working with the state on Aug. 16, they’ve helped process an additional 5,000 applications and continue to chip away at the massive backlog.

Secondly, OHCS brought in around 60 additional staff members to work on application processing, and have allocated funds to counties and community action agencies statewide to beef up their staffing as well.

The final piece is that the state and its community partners are now engaging in a massive outreach campaign to ensure that those who have uncompleted applications or those who need additional documentation complete the process so they can receive the funding they need.

The state is also using the 211 phone number as an informational resource for Oregonians to learn more about rent assistance and what might be available to them.

“Typically you would be rolling out this sort of software solution over the course of months or even years, but we had to do it within the matter of weeks,” Salazar said. “The good news is that, despite all those frustrations, applications are moving through the system.”

Growing Pains

Denis Theriault, Multnomah County’s communications coordinator, said he agrees with Salazar that the pace is picking up, but the outlook for many Oregon renters remains uncertain.

He notes that the metro-area counties have other funding streams that were made available to them that others do not, so the Allita numbers provided by the OHCS dashboard don’t represent the full picture of how many households those counties have helped to date.

According to Theriault, Multnomah County has dispensed approximately $46 million
combined across a few different pools of rent assistance money. Only about $1.4 million of that total represents the state’s emergency rent assistance program that uses the Allita portal.

He said in a typical year, the county gives out about $10 million in rent assistance dollars.
Despite the outflow of money beginning to increase, Theriault said the growing pains of using the Allita software are still causing headaches.

Those using the system have reported a lack of intuitiveness, not only for staff on the back end but also for tenants seeking to apply through the portal. There have also been issues with using a centralized portal, yet having the processing of applications decentralized and completed by many different agencies.

“I think there was recognition that the Allita system is not that great of a system, that this is really challenging and this is going to take time,” he said. “And it wasn’t just Multnomah County, all of us around the state have come to this realization.”

He notes that other states such as Minnesota and Rhode Island have also run into problems with the Allita software.

Salazar said the state is tweaking the process in some cases to make the application process less burdensome. The Treasury is also now allowing tenants to self-attest under penalty of perjury in lieu of providing certain pieces of documentation.

She’s hopeful that Oregon is on the tail end of these delays and will process
more applications as more tenants find themselves facing the threat of eviction.

“Community action agencies have done a lot and we’re asking them to do more,” she
said. “We need them to continue to put their foot on the gas, to staff up, process applications, and, in real time, raise to us any challenges in the software or otherwise that might be preventing them from moving applications to payment.”

For Rena-Dozier and her colleagues who are fighting against the unprecedented wave of eviction for thousands of Oregonians, one of the biggest challenges they face is messaging.

“We’re very concerned that people aren’t getting the information they need to get help that is available” she said. “There is rent assistance available to people that they’re accessing, and it’s not getting to people fast enough and people aren’t getting connected with the legal resources available.”

Oregonians facing eviction can find out if they’re eligible for emergency rent assistance by visiting the state’s website or by dialing 211 to speak with someone about what options are available.

Thosewho have been served an eviction notice are encouraged to reach out to the Oregon Eviction Defense Project for free legal help by calling (888)585-9638 or emailing evictiondefense@oregonlawcenter.org.

Tenants should leave a message on the intake line or by emailing with their name, date of birth and eviction case number.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting