State agency calls in vendor to help with rental assistance
Amid a growing pileup from the Portland metro area, the state housing agency says it will hire more people and an outside vendor to help partners in the three counties process tenant applications for rental assistance.
Officials at the Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services also pledged to meet a federal target of committing 65% of Oregon's share of rental assistance for payments to landlords by Sept. 30.
Director Margaret Salazar said it's not just because the federal government has mandated it or it will recoup the money for use elsewhere.
"Tenants need to get a response and they need to get these resources in their hands," she told reporters on a conference call Thursday, Aug. 5. "There are human beings behind each of these numbers and they are waiting for assistance. We need to step in and make sure we can expedite the assistance getting into their hands."
State officials also acknowledged that some of the backlog results from glitches in a software program used in other states to process applications.
Oregon and Multnomah County have more protection than offered by the latest moratorium issued this past week by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for renters who face potential eviction because of nonpayment.
But the 60-day grace period in Oregon — it's 90 days in Multnomah County — applies only to tenants who show proof to landlords they have applied for help from the Oregon Rental Assistance Program.
According to the Wednesday, Aug. 4, dashboard maintained by the state housing agency, 2,057 of the 25,000 completed applications statewide have been approved for payment totaling $12.6 million. But in Multnomah County, 149 households have been approved for $1.1 million; Washington County, 12 at $37,680; and Clackamas County, 4 at $10,417.
Total completed applications from the three counties is 14,104, about 56% of the statewide total of 25,095 seeking a total of $183.2 million in rent and utilities. For Multnomah County, it's 8,936, seeking a total of $70.2 million; Washington County, 3,721, seeking $30.4 million; and Clackamas County, 1,447, seeking $12.9 million.
Up to 9,000 more applications statewide are still deemed incomplete and not yet reviewed. They are not yet part of the 25,095 total being reviewed and processed.
Vendor is hired
The state agency has brought on 63 more staff and contractors to process applications and help tenants finalize incomplete applications. The addition of an outside vendor would more than double that total.
The vendor is Public Partnerships LLC, based in Boston. It normally works with long-term home care clients and workers under Medicaid, the joint federal-state program of health insurance for low-income people. It has current working relationships with the Office of Developmental Disabilities Services, part of the Oregon Department of Human Services, and the Oregon Home Care Commission.
It also helps state and local governments distribute money under President Joe Biden's pandemic recovery plan, known as the American Rescue Plan Act. A total of $50 billion nationwide has been made available for rental assistance.
Andrea Bell, director of housing stabilization for the state agency, said the vendor will focus on processing 8,500 applications largely from the metro area.
Asked about the huge metro area backlog, Bell said some of the community action agencies are running their own emergency rental assistance programs — but "this is an undertaking we have never had before"
Also, on top of persistent homelessness that dogged the metro area and other Oregon communities before the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, Bell said, "this is a broader indicator of the scale of the need" for housing assistance.
Oregon is not the only state facing issues in moving federal money. Initial regulations by the administration of outgoing President Donald Trump would have made it difficult for anyone to qualify for rental assistance under the initial program. Biden's appointees intervened after Congress approved more money under the recovery plan — and Biden has urged state and local governments to get moving.
"Spend-down targets are something facing our colleagues around the country," Salazar said. "They knew it would be a huge lift to move this much rental assistance in a nine-month period."
At the same time, state agency officials acknowledge glitches in the software program from Allita 360, based in Columbus, Ohio, used in processing applications. Problems with processing also have arisen in Minnesota, which has reported delays, and in Rhode Island, which replaced the vendor.
"We are the first to acknowledge that the Allita system is not perfect," Bell said.
But Salazar said the number of Oregon applications approved for payment has quadrupled within the past week. "It is a strong showing of our progress," she said.
This is the first time the state housing agency has run a statewide portal where Oregonians can access a singular application regardless of region. The centralized portal increases language access, transparency and allows the state to target additional resources to community action agencies with backlogs. The application is available to all individuals living in Oregon, regardless of immigration status."
Salazar also said that despite the number of applications already filed, she suspects there is a greater need because tenants are unaware of the program or have not sought help.
People can still apply for help from the Oregon Rental Assistance Program, which started with state funds and draws from federal funds that Congress approved in December and March. Money can be used to pay past-due rent, current and future rent and utilities.
Salazar said her agency gave priority to distributing $200 million — $150 million to landlords, $50 million to tenants in a separate program — that lawmakers approved from state funds in a Dec. 21 special session. Under that law, landlords who accepted state money had to waive 20% of past-due rent. With the addition of the federal money, they can receive payments that add up to 100%.
Oregon lawmakers did pass a law (Senate Bill 282) that gives tenants until Feb. 28, 2022, to pay past-due rents from April 1, 2020, through June 30, 2021. The same law bars landlords from initiating evictions for failure to pay past-due rent until after the February 2022 deadline.
Neither state nor federal legislation forgives any rent.
Tenants who fear they may fall behind should find out if they qualify and apply today atoregonrentalassistance.org. Spanish speakers in need of assistance should call the Oregon Human Development Corporation at 855-215-6158.
CDC effect unclear
The CDC imposed a nationwide moratorium on evictions last year and extended it several times, most recently until Saturday, July 31. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider a legal challenge by landlords, but a concurring opinion by Justice Brett Kavanaugh suggested that a new moratorium had to win approval from Congress.
Under public pressure, the CDC issued a more limited moratorium extending to Oct. 3. It says in part:
"This order applies in U.S. counties experiencing substantial and high levels of community transmission levels of SARS-CoV-2 as defined by CDC, as of August 3, 2021.
"If a U.S. county that is covered by this order no longer experiences substantial or high levels of community transmission for 14 consecutive days, then this order will no longer apply in that county, unless and until the county again experiences substantial or high levels of community transmission while this order is in effect.
"This order does not apply in any state, local, territorial, or tribal area with a moratorium on residential evictions that provides the same or greater level of public-health protection than the requirements listed in this order or to the extent its application is prohibited by federal court order."
NOTE: Updates with comments from state housing officials during virtual news conference on Thursday, Aug. 5.
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