Backlog slows rental assistance payments in Oregon
Earlier this month, the federal government extended the eviction moratorium until October. In Oregon, renters can get protection from eviction if they have applied for rental assistance. But the state agency that handles those applications, and its nonprofit partners, are facing a huge backlog. Margaret Salazar, Oregon Housing and Community Services tells us about the work they are doing to get rental assistance to people who need it.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Last December, congress approved massive amounts of COVID-19 stimulus money. Included in the total was $47 billion in emergency rental assistance. In Oregon, that translated to nearly $300 million. But very little of that money has actually been spent. Now the state agency charged with helping renters and their landlords, Oregon’s Housing and Community Services Department has turned to an outside vendor to speed up the process. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on state and federal eviction moratoriums. For more on all of this, I’m joined by Margaret Salazar, she’s the Director of Oregon’s Housing and Community Services Department. Good to have you back on the show.
Margaret Salazar: Good afternoon. Thanks for having me.
Miller: Over the last year and a half there have been a whole series of moratoriums and extensions and more recently, so-called safe harbor provisions to help people who have been really having a hard time making their rent. Can you remind us where things stand right now for Oregonians?
Salazar: Absolutely, Dave, thanks for asking. You know, the last 16 months have presented unprecedented challenges to ensure that people have a safe calm during this pandemic. And since the beginning of the pandemic, we have been able to award more than $250 million dollars in rental assistance. There have been a series of policy changes around eviction protections and a series of rental assistance programs. So where we stand now is the Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which is a federally appropriated program is open and it is critical for families that we quickly get those funds into the hands of tenants and landlords. The good news is that here in Oregon, rental assistance has been available continuously through these various programs throughout the pandemic….
Miller: You’re having odd speed-ups and slowdowns from your Zoom connection. Hopefully, that’ll sort itself out, as right now. But can you give us a sense for how many Oregon families are overdue on their rent right now?
Salazar: Yeah, that is a great question. And we know that folks have tried to get their hands around the need out there. Let’s be clear. We know that before the pandemic we had a housing crisis and too many Oregonians were unstably housed, were paying more than 30 or 50% of their income for rent. So we knew we already had a problem there in terms of the emergency and its impact. The best gauge we have of the need out there is the demand for these rental assistance programs. And so with the Oregon emergency rental assistance program, we opened the doors in May, and in a matter of a few weeks, we received 26,000 complete applications from Oregon households. And just to give you a sense of scale, in a typical year, pre-COVID, we served about 8000 households per year with state and federal rental assistance. So this is a huge scale-up...
Miller: Margaret Salazar, we’re going to call you right now so we can actually get a better connection. I’m just going to remind folks right now, what we’re doing, we’re talking, trying to hear Margaret Salazar, who is the Director of Oregon’s Housing and Community Services Department. We’re talking about the latest version of assistance, in this case, emergency rental assistance for Oregonians. This is the latest piece here after billions of dollars were allocated by Congress in December for emergency rental assistance, but in Oregon, as in so many states around the country, it’s really taken a while for that money to actually be approved, to actually be spent and to go to the landlords. We’re still trying to fix our connection with Margaret Salazar. And I’m looking here, it seems like we’re still not yet able to get that connection going. Margaret Salazar, hopefully, you can hear me now. Can you give us a sense for why it’s been so difficult to process these applications?
Salazar: Yes, thank you so much, Dave, hopefully, you can hear me okay now. So as I believe I was mentioning, we just have an unprecedented influx of applications for this program which shows the need out there and while we’ve done everything we can to streamline the reporting requirements and the documentation required and try to make it streamlined, this is a complex federal program. And the exciting thing is that we are seeing a huge uptick in the number of applications that are being paid out. But this is simply a matter of just the amount of applications that came flooding in within just a few weeks’ time and just not having the capacity. Typically, we administer about $17 million dollars a year. So to be able to process this many applications quickly is a challenge, which is why we have brought on an outside vendor to help augment the capacity, particularly in the metro area where we have the majority of applications that have come in.
Miller: So what’s that, what’s that vendor going to be doing, exactly?
Salazar: Yes, absolutely. So these are applications that are currently in the system, folks who have already raised their hand to ask for rental assistance and have been seeking and waiting for that assistance. So this outside vendor will be processing applications in the system ensuring that tenants have submitted all the federally required documentation and that we’re getting the documentation that we need from the landlord. There is a provision for the landlord as well to participate and then actually cutting the checks and getting checks out to tenants in need. And behind every single one of those applications is a family or a household that’s in crisis. And so it’s imperative that we get that jolt of capacity to really push this forward over the next 60 days.
Miller: How much is it going to cost the state to more than double the number of staff and contractors who are working on these applications?
Salazar: Yes, so we have estimates now. It’s not, for a program to scale, about a $200 million dollar program. It’s not a huge amount to be able to invest in this. We’re going to be paying the contractor per application. So that will be a very expedient way to make the cost. And we’ve estimated it will be about $1.2 million dollars when all is said and done. And we think that is a very wise investment to be able to expedite these dollars and protections getting into the hands of folks that need them.
Miller: But in other words, you could see this as a trade-off between getting relief money out the door much faster versus having a little bit more money to give out in the first place?
Salazar: That’s right. That’s right.
Miller: Oregon lawmakers voted to give tenants until the end of February 2022 to pay back rent. There are still big national questions in terms of, of courts, about the federal extension. But what are you expecting when the various moratoriums finally do run out?
Salazar: Yes, It’s something we’re watching very carefully. Another protection that Oregon lawmakers put into place with a safe harbor period, and it’s important for your listeners to know that if they apply for rental assistance, they have additional protections, they’re not able to be evicted for non-payment of rent for a 60 day period of time. So we want to make sure folks know that if they apply for assistance, they’re in a safe harbor period and cannot be evicted while their application is being reviewed and processed. And you’re right, these eviction moratoriums have been ever-changing both at the state, local and federal level. And so we’re making sure that our rental assistance programs can be nimble to address those changing policies. And as the moratoria burn off and expire, the good news is that there will be another wave of federal rental assistance coming, wave two of this emergency rental assistance that was authorized back in April. We expect to receive that in the fall and that will carry forward for some time, certainly beyond February. So there will continue to be resources in play. Of course, we’re watching and listening to your last guests around the changes with COVID and the delta variant. And so we want to make sure that these resources are available as an emergency response provision going forward as long as we can make them last and serve Oregonians. But I think that the other piece to your question is these are emergency resources and emergency moratoria but we also have to do the hard work of building out Oregon’s affordable housing supply so that we have more attainable housing opportunities for all of our community members, particularly our BIPOC communities who’ve been bearing the brunt of this housing crisis. And the good news is that Oregon lawmakers stepped up to the plate with a $900 million dollar housing package that just came out of the legislative session. So that’s the good news that will continue to open doors all across the state, but we’re also focused on these emergency provisions right now.
Miller: So just sticking with the emergency, before we say goodbye. Obviously, there have been and continue to be questions about the speed at which this money can actually go to landlords after tenants apply for it, but then there’s another question of just the pool of money itself. Is this money that’s available now and that the next round that will soon be available, is that enough to meet the need?
Salazar: So, Dave, it’s hard for me to answer that question because I don’t have a sense of the need and it keeps changing. I just got a, someone who applied for assistance who thought they were going to get a job, was about to start a job and then that job lead fell through. So we still have a lot of volatility out there of folks, thinking that the economy is roaring back to life, but those opportunities may not fully be there yet, and certainly, folks have back rent that’s due. So I think that we probably are not going to be able to meet the full need out there with these resources. We’re going to do everything we can to speed up the processing and be able to get folks the protections that they deserve. And then we need to take the long view of thinking about the economic recovery and making sure that housing is at the centerpiece of that recovery for our state.
Miller: Margaret Salazar, thanks very much for joining us today. I appreciate it.
Salazar: Thank you.
Miller: Margaret Salazar is a director of Oregon’s Housing and Community Services department.
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