State responds to rent assistance delays in Clackamas County
Oregon's rental assistance program announced Thursday it is increasing efforts to respond to high volumes of applications — many of which still await initial review — following the federal government's decision to extend a ban on evictions through Oct. 3.
Extending the eviction moratorium came as officials in Clackamas County expressed optimism over efforts with Metro to keep supportive housing services funded through a new tax approved by regional voters.
On July 20, county commissioners accepted a $3 million advance from Metro (with the option to request an additional $2 million if needed) after a delay in tax receipts left four housing services at risk of being discontinued or defunded.
On Tuesday, Housing Director Jill Smith informed commissioners that Metro housing officials have offered "an advance of the full amount of funding necessary" to move forward with their $24.5 million implementation plan.
Clackamas County's board did not make an official decision to accept the offer at Tuesday's meeting, and will continue to work with staff to iron out the details. County Commission Chair Tootie Smith said she appreciated Metro's "generosity" in offering that amount.
To date, Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS) has paid over $8 million to 1,290 households through the Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program (OERAP) with an additional $12 million already approved to be sent to approximately 2,000 households soon, said Director of Housing Stabilization Andrea Bell during a press briefing.
OHCS has also paid $50 million to households in need of rental assistance through the Supporting Tenants Accessing Rental Relief (STARR) Program.
Bell said roughly 25,000 completed OERAP applications have been submitted into the state's system in total, over half of those applications coming from within the Metro region. However, officials said, 55% of them are pending review statewide, most of them coming from within Metro.
"As of Monday, the Metro region had more than 13,700 submitted applications for the OERAP. That represents more than 56% of all applications received in the state. However, only 10% of funded applications are from the Metro region. Importantly, more than 76% of applications are in 'pending initial review' within the Metro region," Bell said, adding that this indicated to the state that an intervention was needed "to support these communities and our local administrators."
Before submitted applications are approved for funding, they must pass through five review stages beginning with the "pending initial review" stage and ending with "final review" stage.
Per OHCS's latest data report, of the 1,447 applications submitted by Clackamas County residents, 1,037 — 72% — are pending initial review as of Aug. 5. 175, or 12% of them are at the final review stage, and 17 of them — just 1% — have been approved for payment.
To mitigate the issue, OCHS has partnered with Public Partnerships, LLC who will provide additional staff to aid is processing applications
As of Aug. 4, Bell said, "our teams met with that first cohort of 60-plus staff, we engaged in about a five-hour training... so that we can begin deploying this additional capacity in a in a matter of days."
"Most of the additional capacity from our third-party vendor will help those agencies serving the tri-county area, where we are most concerned with the speed at which assistance is getting in the hands of tenants," Bell said in a press release. "As the state housing agency, we will continue taking bold action to stabilize renters."
"Investing in an equitable recovery is something we have an unwavering commitment to," added Margaret Salazar, executive director of OHCS. "Workers and families across the state are just beginning to recoup from the trauma and economic hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we must do all we can, and use all tools available to protect them from becoming unhoused during this vulnerable time."
To accept OERAP applications, OHCS has been using an online platform called Allita, which Bell indicated has been malfunctioning, contributing to the delays.
"We are the first to acknowledge that the Allita system is not perfect," Bell said. "The back end of the system has been glitchy. It's frustrating for those processing their applications and we know that that burden is very real."
Despite the "less than ideal" system, Bell said data has shown an "uptick" in the amount of submitted applications able to be processed and paid in recent weeks. OCHS is continuing to move forward with Allita while remaining in conversation with them regarding ongoing issues.
"In front of us we have a large task of getting these resources, these emergency resources into the hands of the people of Oregon," Bell said. "While there are undoubtedly challenges, we cannot — and we know our local administrators will not — allow these challenges to be excuses."
Oregon officials held the press conference shortly after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on Tuesday it is extending the federal eviction moratorium from Aug. 3 to Oct. 3.
The temporary extension was intended to prevent at-risk tenants from losing their homes in counties with virus transmission rates ranging from "substantial" to "high" per CDC data. Out of Oregon's 36 counties, all but one — Lake County — fall under that distinction.
Tenants in need of further rental assistance can call 211 or click here.
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