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Regional Interests

With eviction moratorium set to expire, Oregon lawmakers aim to get rental assistance ‘out the doo

Oregon lawmakers outlined a proposal this week that would place a “pause” on evictions for renters who are unable to pay their July or August rent and are awaiting word on applications for rental assistance made available to the state by the federal government.

On Monday, members of the House of Representatives’ committee on rules heard more than an hour of testimony both in favor and against “gut and stuff” amendments to Senate Bill 278 that would halt rental evictions for 60 days if a tenant can provide proof they’ve applied for rental assistance through Oregon Housing and Community Services via its local Community Action Partnership of Oregon agency.

The proposal outlined in the amendments to SB 278 follow a June 4 housing committee hearing where members of the legal community and housing experts sounded the alarm that the expiration of Oregon’s eviction moratorium on June 30 could provide for mass evictions if lawmakers didn’t step in to help provide the state more time to get checks into the hands of those needing them. Oregon’s landlord compensation fund, which aims to offset losses seen by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on renters’ ability to pay rent, has also seen hiccups in getting money into the right hands. The state currently has $200 million in federal aid it’s hoping to push out in the coming months to help both tenants and landlords. Another round of funding is expected to be available this fall.

According to proponents of the amended bill, OHCS and its partners are seeing unprecedented levels of applications for rental assistance statewide and do not have the personnel or bandwidth to keep up. Some community action agencies in the Willamette Valley have seen upward of 20% increases in the number of rental assistance applications submitted in recent weeks, with thousands of applications waiting to be processed.

On top of that, many of the agencies are having difficulty with incomplete applications and trouble with the Allita 360 software the state is using to roll out rental assistance to Oregonians.

The House rules committee heard that many Oregonians facing eviction are hanging on by a thread, and that it would be a “tragedy” to allow them to “fall off the cliff” when an unprecedented amount of federal aid is waiting to be spent on this very issue.

But House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, expressed that she felt this was basically an extension of the state’s eviction moratorium.

Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, described the proposal as an “eviction pause” because it only applies to those who furnish proof that they’re waiting on rental assistance applications.

Drazan said she felt the distinction between a pause and an extension of the moratorium was splitting hairs.

“I find this to be a complete and total overreach,” Drazan said. “Our entire state of emergency in our economy and everything else is going to be wide open within a matter of days or weeks from today, and the fact that this is all about whether or not you’ve applied, and not whether or not you’ve been approved... it’s not the landlord’s fault that the state didn’t get its act together until May 7.”

House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-NE Portland, said that many of the problems and timing issues Oregon is currently facing in getting funds to people has to do with a lack of direction from the federal government which only published guidance on how to spend federal dollars on May 7.

“It wasn’t a dereliction of the state,” Smith Warner said.

Rep. Jack Zika, R-Bend, said he wasn’t confident in the ability of Housing and Community Services and its partners to get checks out the door within 60 days, saying that the agency has been gridlocked.

Fahey said that it’s less about gridlock and more about staffing levels within the community action agencies to be able to keep up with the historic number of applications for rental assistance, vetting each one and helping folks finish incomplete applications.

Lawmakers also learned that applications among Oregonians whose primary language isn’t English were slow to roll in and have been picking up in recent weeks.

Testimony on behalf of organizations representing landlords included accusations that lawmakers misled landlords on the effect of SB 282, the bill that passed in May extending Oregon’s eviction moratorium on rent between April 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021, to Feb. 28, 2022.

Jason Miller, legislative director for the Oregon Rental Housing Association, said that his organization and others were led to believe that SB 282 would be the transition out of the pandemic housing crisis that would allow tenants to catch up on rent.

“With this understanding, we made the very unpopular decision to not outright oppose SB 282,” Miller said. “Yet here we are facing another moratorium bill that allows anyone to claim a 60 day moratorium anytime up until Feb. 28, 2022… I’m not sure who would need this 60 day extension six or even seven months from now when we’re fully open.”

Ron Garcia, executive director of the Rental Housing Alliance of Oregon, said that proposal outlined in the amendments to SB 278 is a “breach of faith” on promises made by legislators in SB 282. He said his organization disagrees that there’s a need for the bill.

“The rationale behind this last minute emergency bill seems to be that the agents responsible for distributing those hundreds of million dollars in rent assistance haven’t got all the money out the door in time for the June 30 deadline,” Garcia said. “I’d like to make clear that there is a second side to the narrative about an emergency, an eviction event that is on the horizon. I don’t believe that that’s the case. SB 282 allows tenants eight months to pay back past owed rent despite these dire warnings. They only need to resume paying the existing current monthly rent.”

On the other side of the debate, Allison McIntosh with the Oregon Housing Alliance outlined how an unprecedented number of rental assistance applications are coming in, 62% of which are from Oregonians at less than 50% median income of their area -- many of which are BIPOC households. McIntosh said that statewide there are more than 10,000 households in the queue to receive assistance.

“Organizations and communities across Oregon are working incredibly hard, as they have been since the pandemic began, to get rent assistance out the door and into the hands of landlords and tenants. To provide basic assistance to prevent evictions, agencies are acutely aware of the need to expedite resources,” McIntosh said. “It would be really tragic if in these final moments, people lost their homes because money didn’t get allocated on time, and SB 278, with the amendments, would give folks 60 days in order to give providers time in order to solve these problems which we know we can do.”

According to Rep. Fahey, lawmakers hope to hold a work session on SB 278 later this week where they would vote on the amendments and whether or not to send it to the floor.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting