House standing on dollar pile

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 $38 million of that particular pot to reach just over 6,200 households in 2021, according to Oregon Housing and Community Services.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury announced that it hopes to see states distribute approximately 65% of their federally allocated rental 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 landlords. 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 Oregon Housing and Community Services, 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 rental assistance have been approved for $6.7 million in funding. Just 18% of Lane County’s applications await initial review.

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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 Oregon Housing and Community Services 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 applications.

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 Gov. 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 cases were 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, Oregon Housing and Community Services 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 the agency shows the flow of emergency rental 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, Oregon Housing and Community Services 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 Oregon Housing and Community Services 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 the company began working with the state on Aug. 16, it has helped process an additional 5,000 applications and continues to chip away at the massive backlog.

Secondly, Oregon Housing and Community Services brought in around 60 additional staff members to work on application processing, and has 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.”

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