Payments increase four-fold, but almost 15,000 metro applications are incomplete or not yet reviewed.

PMG FILE PHOTO - A huge backlog of rental assistance requests are pending in the three-county Portland area. Despite progress in the past six weeks, unreviewed and incomplete applications far outnumber already-approved payments for rental assistance in the Portland metro area as a spend-it-or-lose-it deadline nears.

According to a dashboard maintained by the Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services, 7,549 of 34,521 applications statewide were approved for payment to landlords as of Sept. 16 — 21.9% — for a total of $47.7 million of $204.7 million requested.

About one-third of applications have not yet undergone an initial review.

But for Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties, the totals were far less.

For them collectively, 1,959 of 18,414 applications (10.6%) have been approved for payment, or $15.2 million of $121.3 million requested. Not quite half the total applications (7,651, or 41.6%) have yet to undergo an initial review. (See breakout for more details about the counties.)

All figures exclude incomplete applications, which total 12,295 statewide, 7,262 of them from the three counties.

Counting the $48 million listed above, the state and community action agencies in Oregon's 36 counties have distributed about $250 million, $200 million of it from state funds that lawmakers approved at a Dec. 21 special session. They did so when the prospects for direct federal aid were uncertain, but Oregon got more than $200 million after Congress approved President Joe Biden's pandemic recovery plan, which included $50 billion in federal funds for states and communities for rental assistance.

Although Biden signed the plan March 11, it took more than two months for the U.S. Treasury Department to provide guidance to states about how the funds should be spent — and federal officials had to scrap earlier spending guidelines developed under former President Donald Trump. Critics said those guidelines made it difficult for tenants to qualify for any aid.

Multiple challenges

In an unsigned statement furnished to Pamplin Media Group, the state housing agency acknowledges there have been challenges in handling millions in aid that neither it nor community agencies have had to pay out before now.

The statement reads:

"OHCS and community action agencies (CAAs) have faced numerous challenges in administering OERAP (rental assistance) funds, along with many other states. From a decentralized rental assistance program, to inconsistencies in using federal flexibilities for self-attestation in counties, to technology challenges, OHCS have been doing everything in its power to remove barriers, process applications quickly and get funds out the door."

Director Margaret Salazar said back in August that her agency has hired 63 more staff and contractors and added an outside vendor — for a total of more than 160 — to process applications and to help tenants finalize incomplete applications.

The vendor is Public Partnerships LLC, based in Boston, which has worked on other Oregon programs. 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 the American Rescue Plan Act, the official name of Biden's pandemic recovery plan.

"But this is an undertaking we have never had before," Andrea Bell, director of housing stabilization for the state agency, told reporters on Aug. 5.

State officials have pledged to meet a federal target of committing 65% of Oregon's share of rental assistance for payments to landlords by Sept. 30 — or the federal government can recoup the money for use elsewhere.

Oregon is not the only state coping with problems arising from the program.

Signs of progress

But compared with totals from six weeks ago, Oregon has now paid out four times the amount it did back then, even though metro-area applications remain stockpiled.

On Aug. 4, according to the state dashboard, 2,057 of the 25,000 completed applications then pending statewide were approved for payment totaling $12.6 million. But in Multnomah County, 149 households were approved for $1.1 million; Washington County, 12 at $37,680, and Clackamas County, 4 at $10,417.

The pressure for processing payments comes as state and Multnomah County grace periods are approaching their end. Oregon lawmakers, before they ended their 2021 session on June 26, passed a law that delays eviction proceedings 60 days if tenants show proof to landlords that they have applied for rental assistance. In Multnomah County, because of action by the county commissioners, that period is 90 days.

Neither measure forgives past-due rent.

The Community Alliance of Tenants called on Gov. Kate Brown to extend a state moratorium on evictions. But unlike the foreclosure moratorium, which lawmakers gave her specific authority to extend, Brown has no clear mandate to do so for evictions. Also, the issue is not on the agenda for the Sept. 20 special session of the Oregon Legislature, although the tenants' group wants it to be — and plans a demonstration that morning at the Capitol in Salem.

"Redistricting is a critical issue that helps determine representation in the political process for renters," executive director Kim McCarty said in a statement. "But what's most pressing for our members is eviction prevention while this pandemic and its effects rage on. We need a special session to ante-up our renters protections now, we can't wait."

The state housing agency said in its statement:

"OHCS is working with the Oregon Department of Justice, the Oregon Law Center, county court systems, landlords, community action agencies, tenant housing advocates and the larger legal community to prevent evictions from moving forward. The governor's office has instructed judges hearing eviction cases that they not forward with eviction proceedings if a renter has applied for rental assistance.

"All that said, the threat of evictions looms large. We are counting on landlords to do the right thing. We know they've been patient. We know they are in a tough situation. Funds are flowing out the door. They have already received more than $182.6 million in rental assistance funds in 2021. Evictions will only slow the process in getting them funds."

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Metro region

A more detailed breakdown of the number of applications from households for help from the Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program, the total amount sought, and the number of applications and amounts approved for payment. The figures are updated online Tuesdays and Thursdays by the Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services; these numbers are from Sept. 16.

• Multnomah County: 11,644 households have applied for a total of $73.2 million; 1,605 have been approved for payment at $12.1 million. Awaiting initial review: 4,329 applications (46% of completed applications).

• Washington County: 4,821 households have applied for $34.6 million, and 227 have been approved for payment at $1.8 million. Awaiting initial review: 2,333 applications (48%).

• Clackamas County, 1,949 households have applied for $13.5 million, and 127 have been approved for payment at $1.3 million. Awaiting initial review: 989 applications (51%).

— Peter Wong

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