Tony Salas applied for rent assistance through the state on May 21, hoping for a roughly $3,000 grant to help him and his family get back on their feet. They had run through their savings trying to keep up with the rent and utility bills on their Northeast Portland home during the pandemic.
Nearly six weeks later, Salas is still waiting for even an update, much less a decision.
“We just want to know where in the queue our application is,” Salas said.
Oregon is in the process of distributing $204 million in federal rent assistance to struggling renters through the new Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program, but getting that money out is taking time. Nonprofits and other agencies tasked with evaluating applications are now trying to process in a month the same number they would typically expect in a year.
The backlog could have devastating consequences. Those community organizations have about two months to process applications before an applicant’s eviction protections run out — a timeline some may be unable to meet.
“I’d like to guarantee 100% that we’re going to be able to get through every completed application that we have, but I can’t make that guarantee,” said Kemp Shuey, executive director at Community Action, which serves Washington County. “I do think we’re really optimistic.”
Applications for the Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program opened May 19. Over the last six weeks, more than 15,000 Oregon households have requested nearly $90 million in rent assistance through the program. However, only about $700,000 had actually been distributed to 113 households as of Wednesday, according to Oregon Housing and Community Services, the state agency administering the program.
About 67% of applications statewide were still awaiting initial review, the agency reported. Another 14% that have been reviewed will require additional information from tenants, which will further slow down the payment process.
Connor McDonnell, a spokesperson for Oregon Housing and Community Services, said many of the 18 community agencies across the state tasked with distributing rent assistance were focused on distributing $50 million in state rent assistance funds by an end-of-June deadline. They’re only now shifting their focus to the new program, which should lead to assistance going out more quickly in the coming weeks.
Shuey said more money has actually gone out than the agency is reporting, as well, because local agencies are cutting checks before reporting that information back to the state.
However, he said there is a serious backlog in applications.
His organization was processing about 35 rent assistance applications a month before the pandemic. They’ve been able to ramp up their capacity over the last year by hiring additional staff and getting help from the state, Shuey said, enabling them to process up to 800 applications a month. (The state will have 55 staff members by mid-July that can help local agencies process applications, McDonnell said.)
However, Shuey said his agency has already received 3,000 applications through the state’s new rent assistance program, and that number continues to grow.
It became even more critical this week for those community agencies to process applications quickly as Oregon’s moratorium on residential evictions expired Wednesday.
Lawmakers gave Oregon renters until Feb. 28, 2022, to repay overdue rent accumulated between April 2020 and June 2021, averting massive bills for past-due rent July 1. That helps renters who have accumulated debt over the last year, but not those who are still struggling to pay their bills.
The federal government extended its moratorium on evictions until the end of July, which could offer another month of protections to many Oregonians. But to receive protections under the federal moratorium, renters must attest in writing that they sustained a substantial loss in income, would likely face homelessness if evicted and have tried to apply for rent assistance. The moratorium covers renters who earn less than $99,000 a year, or $198,000 for joint filers.
Renter advocates, however, said that moratorium alone won’t be enough to stop a wave of evictions this summer as thousands of tenants struggle to pay their upcoming rent bills. They called on Oregon lawmakers last month to extend the state’s moratorium, but there wasn’t enough political support for the legislature to pass yet another extension. Instead, lawmakers settled on a stop-gap measure, approving legislation last month that protects renters from eviction for 60 days after they apply for rent assistance and notify their landlords.
The 60-day clock starts once a renter informs their landlord they’ve applied for assistance, not when they submit their application. Renters must provide proof they’ve applied for assistance at or before their first court appearance for eviction proceedings.
But the effectiveness of the bill relies on community agencies being able to process applications within 60 days after renters inform their landlords they’ve applied.
Katrina Holland, executive director at JOIN, which helps people experiencing homelessness in the Portland metro area transition into permanent housing and has been advocating for eviction protections during the pandemic, said renter advocates warned lawmakers last July that the rent assistance system could buckle under the weight of the need.
She said agencies that deliver rent assistance have been underfunded and understaffed for years. The rent assistance system, she said, isn’t automated and wasn’t built to distribute millions of dollars in a short period of time.
Holland said she is hopeful that organizations will be able to process most applications within 60 days over the summer after ramping up operations over the last year, but she worries some renters will fall through the cracks.
“SB 278 unfortunately is a Band-Aid that our legislators could stomach,” Holland said. “It doesn’t meet the moment. There are a lot of us that are terrified that there are going to be thousands of people on the street, even with SB 278 in place, because of the backlog.”
The U.S. Census Bureau estimated in its most recent Household Pulse Survey that more than 12% of Oregon renters are behind on rent payments, and approximately 20% have no confidence or only slight confidence that they will be able to pay next month’s rent.
A separate survey conducted by Multifamily NW, an industry group that represents Oregon landlords, found that 12% of Oregon households had not paid their June rent by the middle of the month.
Jimmy Jones, executive director for the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, said he believes most rent assistance applications will be processed within 60 days, but he worries that there will be some renters who won’t apply because they aren’t aware of the resources available.
And there’s the risk that some renters might not get anything at all.
Jones’ agency has approved 73 applications and submitted another 46 for funding approval so far, totaling $1.1 million in aid, he said. But they’ve received 2,400 applications in total, and only been allocated $14 million by the state to distribute.
“I think there’s a high degree of chance that a bunch of households are going to get missed,” Jones said. “Over July, August and September, I do think you’re going to see a significant uptick in evictions from a normal month pre-COVID.”
Salas, the Northeast Portland renter, left his job in the cannabis industry last year because he is immunocompromised and helps care for a child with a disability.
He has been applying for jobs and hopes to soon return to the workforce, but said he ran through his savings trying to keep up with his bills and has fallen behind on his rent payments over the last several months. The rent assistance would give him the lifeline he needs to keep up with his rent and utility payments over the next couple months and pay off his debt, he said.
He said he received confirmation that his application was accepted the day he applied May 21. Since then, he has sent six messages to the state through the rent assistance portal’s message center to ask about the status of his application. He hasn’t heard back.
The anxiety ratcheted up as rent came due July 1.
“It sure does get a bit more stressful, as the first rolls by with still no clue at all,” Salas said.