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A sign advertises apartments for rent in North Portland.

Oregon is reallocating more than $1.5 million in rental and utility assistance earmarked for residents in smaller communities in the southern and western parts of the state after determining that three local agencies weren’t on track to distribute the money by a Dec. 30 deadline.

Oregon Housing and Community Services, the state agency overseeing the programs, reclaimed $1.15 million in assistance from an organization representing Linn, Benton, and Lincoln counties, $250,000 in rental assistance from a Jackson County group and $124,500 in utility assistance from an organization serving Douglas and Josephine counties. The money will be redistributed to local agencies in other parts of the state.

The state has not recouped any money from Multnomah County, even though the state’s largest county has been slower at allocating aid than nearly every other agency.

The reallocation of funds is among several steps that the state is taking in an effort to avoid forfeiting millions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief money at the end of the year.

The Oregon Legislature’s Emergency Board earmarked $60 million for rental assistance and $15 million for energy assistance in June to help struggling Oregonians. But that money has been slow to go out.

Approximately 60% of the rental assistance dollars had been distributed by Nov. 9, while another 18% had been committed to specific households but not yet paid, according to a report from Oregon Housing and Community Services. An estimated 43% of the energy assistance dollars had been distributed by Nov. 9 and another 28% had been committed to specific households but not paid out, according to the report.

The money must be distributed by the end of the year or the federal government will reclaim it.

“We remain committed to not sending a single penny back to the federal government,” said Nicole Stingh, senior legislative and government relations coordinator for housing and community services. “That is still our number-one goal, that all of these resources are used in Oregon.”

Reallocating funds

Shortly after the Legislature allocated federal dollars for rental and energy assistance in June, Oregon Housing and Community Services sent that money to 18 agencies across the state to distribute within their communities.

The need for the assistance is substantial. Data compiled by Multifamily NW, a rental industry group whose members include landlords and property managers, shows that between 12% and 15% of renters in Oregon have been unable to keep up with their rental payments during the pandemic. A survey conducted by Portland State University researchers found the situation to be considerably worse with 36% of 460 Oregon tenants reporting they owed back rent.

Last month, Oregon Housing and Community Services said it would step in if agencies weren’t on track to pay out the rental and energy assistance by the end-of-year deadline. While many agencies have made significant progress since October — when only 38% of rental assistance funds and 22% of energy assistance funds had been paid out — some locales were still behind at the beginning of November. That prompted the agency to act.

The local agencies had various explanations for their inability to distribute the money.

Melanie Doshier, support services director at ACCESS in Jackson County, said in October that the agency was under the impression that 15% of its $3.3 million in rental assistance didn’t need to be paid out until next June. In fact, the Legislature had converted those funds to federal dollars in August. As of Oct. 2, ACCESS had distributed just 10% of its allocation.

When ACCESS realized that all the money had to be paid out by Dec. 30, it agreed to return a portion to Oregon Housing and Community Services. Since then, Doshier said the agency has picked up the speed at which it is spending its allocation and has requested that housing and community services consider giving back the money it returned. As of Nov. 9, it had distributed 45% of their money and allocated another 22%.

Community Services Consortium, serving Linn, Benton, and Lincoln counties, had paid out just 36% of its $4.2 million in rental assistance and 7% of its nearly $970,000 in energy assistance by Oct. 2.

Pegge McGuire, acting director, said her consortium had tried to roll out an online process for community members to apply for rental assistance, but hadn’t seen the response it was looking for and felt it was missing struggling renters who might find the online form inaccessible. The organization has since been contacting renters directly, which has helped speed up the process.

But by early November, Oregon Housing and Community Services still felt the consortium wasn’t on target to pay out the money by year’s end. McGuire said the state agency asked that they return 18% of their rental assistance money earlier this month. They were asked to return over 40% of their energy assistance dollars as well.

“It was very distressing,” McGuire said. “I feel like it’s detrimental to our area that we’re serving, but I also don’t want to give any money back to the feds. We want the money to stay in Oregon and help Oregonians in distress.”

Copyright 2020 Tribune Content Agency.

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