The Community Alliance of Tenants called upon elected officials to provide better protections for renters.

COURTESY PHOTO: DREAMSTIME - Advocates say that Oregon has failed to protect tenants amid the pandemic. The head of a local tenant advocacy organization last week decried as inadequate the response of the state to eviction challenges during the coronavirus crisis.

"Oregon's response to the COVID-19 pandemic eviction crisis is an absolute failure," said Kim McCarty, executive director of the Community Alliance of Tenants, during a press conference Thursday, Aug 19.

The Alliance is Oregon's oldest tenant advocacy organization, offering hotline services and direct advocacy for primarily metro-area tenants facing eviction or other housing conflicts. It's a member-led organization with an advisory board primarily comprised of tenants.

The organization held the press conference, called "Tenants on the Mic," in which McCarty and other alliance members called upon elected officials to enact legislation that provides sufficient protections for at-risk renters.

"We're profoundly worried about the fact that so many people are at risk of an eviction," McCarty said. "With both state and federal eviction (moratoriums) expiring, our state is looking at 125,000-plus evictions while millions more Americans across the country teeter on the brink of an eviction," referencing a June 28 Portland State University study that projects more than 125,000 Oregon residents to be at risk of eviction after the federal eviction moratorium expires on Oct. 3.

The federal moratorium was initially set to expire July 31, but it was extended by President Joe Biden. The state moratorium expired June 30.

A growing crisis

Tyler Mac Innis, director of the Welcome Home Coalition — which represents nearly 70 organizations throughout the Portland metro area with the goal of strengthening resources to address the regional housing crisis — said that despite the federal extension, it remains "unclear" whether or not the new moratorium will hold up in the courts, leaving "tens of thousands" of Oregon renters uncertain about how long their protections will last.

McCarty called upon elected officials to "enact an eviction moratorium that allows states to disperse all rent-relief dollars in an efficient way," with the goal of reducing the rent burden "down to pre-pandemic level or eliminated altogether."

Mac Innis said a new wave of evictions would have "significant financial costs to our communities" on top of human costs, adding that the PSU report "estimated that mass evictions could cost the state up to $4.7 billion in things like shelter costs, medical and foster care."

McCarty said the Alliance has demanded "many times" to extend the moratorium "until all rent relief is dispersed." The federal moratorium briefly expired for three days between July 31 and Aug. 3, when the Biden administration issued an order to extend the moratorium for another 60 days.

Two days later, on Aug. 5, Oregon's state rental assistance program announced it would be increasing efforts to respond to high volumes of applications — many of which still await initial review.

To mitigate the issue, Oregon House and Community Services has partnered with Public Partnerships, LLC, which will provide additional staff to aid in processing applications.

Per OHCS data at the time of the announcement, of the 1,447 applications submitted by Clackamas County residents, 1,037 — or 72% — were pending initial review. A total of 175, or 12% of them, were at the final review stage, and 17 of them — just 1% — had been approved for payment.

By that point, OHCS had paid roughly $8 million to 1,290 households across the state through the Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program, with an additional $12 million approved to be sent to approximately 2,000 households as soon as possible, said Director of Housing Stabilization Andrea Bell during a press briefing. OHCS had also paid $50 million by then to households in need of rental assistance through the Supporting Tenants Accessing Rental Relief Program.

Per OHCS's latest data report, as of Aug. 18, of the 1,636 applications submitted in the county, 1,155 — 71% — remained unreviewed, a 1% improvement in roughly two weeks.

A total of $6,763 had been dispersed among two households by Aug. 18. Twelve more have been approved for an approximate total of $51,000, but await payment.

According to data compiled by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Oregon ranked 27th in the nation in spending of Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds as of Aug. 23. Of the $204,366,635 allocated, the state has paid out just $24,232,445 (around 12% of the funds).

Too many hurdles

The Aug. 19 press conference included a featured a performance from Portland resident and singer-songwriter Musonda Mwango, who began by sharing his personal story of trying to file a rental-assistance application through the Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Mwango said he filed his application June 10 and has still received nothing.

"The challenges they presented in just being able to fill out that application — they say the money is there and yet, the hurdles that you have to jump through just to get through to your application to get to a place where you can get funding have been just ridiculous," Mwango said. "Most of the time I just got frustrated. I'm like, 'whatever, I'm over this.'"

Before completed applications are submitted for funding, they must pass through five review stages beginning with the "pending initial review" stage and ending with "final review" stage.

Mwango, who is originally from Zambia, added that if he was having trouble with the application, describing himself as being competent at understanding such processes, others who are less experienced are even more alienated.

"I'm thinking about the grandma out there that might live by herself, and does not even know about this. I'm thinking about the disabled person out there," he said.

Mwango suggested that OHCS connect with applicants and prospective applicants through Zoom calls and other means of outreach to make the process more accessible and less laborious for at-risk renters.

"As an immigrant," he said, "there is no way in America, the way I have known it ... there's no way that we should be having this."

'It's really up to the government'

At the county level, commissioners on July 20 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 Aug. 3, 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 the meeting, and 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.

McCarty said in the Alliance's correspondences with legislative committees regarding the housing crisis, its demands to restore rent burden to "at least pre-pandemic levels" have "floundered."

"Although legislators expressed their support of bills that would relieve tenants, we still do not have a solution to the crisis," she said. "Grassroots organizations like CAT have filled the gaps in our communities, helping tenants fend off inevitable evictions."

"Even before the public health crisis, many of our low-income communities and communities of color were in a housing crisis," McCarty told Pamplin Media Group. "Every year the cost of housing goes up, seemingly without a cap. We do have Senate Bill 608, which is not a rent cap, but it does provide some relief from rising rents. But regardless, no one's income is going up at the rate of 10% a year, and many of our landlords are still increasing the rents up to the limit that is possible for them. And that's beyond the reach of many people."

Diandre Robinson, tenant education coordinator for the Alliance, said during the press conference that he and his colleagues get calls "every single day" from tenants who are unable to pay next month's rent, scared about the possibility of being evicted and largely not being served by their local and state governments.

McCarty said that despite the best efforts of the Alliance and other mutual aid organizations, they alone cannot make the problem go away.

"We try to help you out as much as we can. We use all our resources that we can. But it's really not up to us," Robinson said. "It's really up to the government: (Gov.) Kate Brown, Oregon state, the nation's government."

McCarty said that the projected 125,000 households that could soon receive eviction notices represent roughly three in every 100 state residents.

"The frightening fact is this number is merely the number of households that could receive eviction notices very soon here, not the number of people affected by those evictions," she added. "So we don't really know the actual scale of these evictions. Entire families, friends and networks could be broken up by these mass evictions."

Biden has not announced further stopgap measures beyond the eviction moratorium's Oct. 3 expiration date, despite high numbers of at-risk tenants across the nation and ongoing demands from tenant advocacy groups.

"We don't see where the safety net is," McCarty said. "There is no time to act like this is normal."

Six years ago, the alliance declared a renter state of emergency that has yet to be lifted, but McCarty said leaders ignored the declaration, abandoning tenants "in their greatest time of need" instead of "taking bold, sweeping actions" to protect them.

"We saw more tents, and more expensive towers go up around the state, while our Black, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Latinx, immigrant and refugee communities slipped further into the jaws of the eviction machine," McCarty said.

"Now, on the heels of a global pandemic, historic racial injustice and the justice protests, massive wildfires that have destroyed entire towns and a massive rush to reopen Oregon's businesses, we see scores of our most vulnerable residents uncertain if there's a place that they can even call home anymore, in this 'new normal.'"

To learn more about the alliance, or to donate to their cause, visit their website here. Watch the full press conference here.

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