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State says some areas still have money; lawmakers agree on more, but not extending protections for renters.

Oregon has now put an official six-week pause on new applications from tenants for rental assistance.

But the director of the state housing agency said tenants can still apply if they live in cities and counties that received their shares of rental assistance directly from the U.S. Treasury — the city of Portland and the three metro counties are in this category — and tenants may be able to resume filing applications with her agency if lawmakers come up with money sooner.

The pause took effect Dec. 2.

"There is too much demand out there, and we simply cannot continue to accept applications," Margaret Salazar, director of the Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services, told reporters Wednesday, Dec. 1. "But while we are pausing on accepting new applications coming into the program, we are not pausing our work behind the scenes to review, process and pay out rental assistance for applications that have already been submitted."

As of Nov. 30, she said, her agency has paid out $157 million in federal funds for rental assistance to a total of 23,000 households. The agency anticipates that its current total of $289 million from federal funds for rental assistance will be exhausted by 29,000 pending applications. That total is on top of $200 million that lawmakers approved in state funds for rental assistance a year ago, when prospects for federal aid were uncertain. The state money was spent by June.

Oregon has applied for $198 million more in federal funds, but the U.S. Treasury is unlikely to reallocate rental assistance money not used by other states before February or March.

Gov. Kate Brown has called a special session of the Oregon Legislature for Dec. 13. She has asked lawmakers to approve $90 million more for rental assistance and $100 million for eviction prevention and other services for housing stability.

If the additional $90 million is made available on the same terms as the current program, Salazar said, "we would be able to accept new applications sooner than the six-week period we have publicized."

Brown also has asked lawmakers to extend grace periods, also known as safe harbors, against eviction proceedings for tenants who can show landlords they have applied for rental assistance.

This is a point of contention between majority Democrats, who want to do both, and minority Republicans, who say they favor the money but oppose the extensions of legal protections. The full Legislature is empowered to do both; the 20-member Emergency Board can approve only money.

Salazar declined to comment on the specifics of any grace-period extension. Lawmakers originally approved 60 days in legislation at the close of the 2021 session in June. Commissioners in Multnomah and Washington counties, and the Beaverton City Council, set 90 days in separate actions.

Requests stack up

According to housing advocates, more than 10,000 applications for rental assistance are past those deadlines. Salazar said her agency has delegated processing of some to an outside vendor, Public Partnerships LLC. Community action agencies in Oregon counties also are processing applications.

"It is a staggering amount of dollars and households served. It dwarfs any rental assistance program that Oregon has ever run," Salazar said.

"It shows that dollars are getting out the door. It is a snapshot of the tremendous need out there for tenants and landlords. These programs have hit a nerve of need in our longstanding housing crisis, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic we are facing."

The $289 million in federal funds for rental assistance excludes amounts for administration and for housing stability services, such as eviction prevention. Brown has called for $100 million in state funds for such services, aside from rental assistance.

The nationwide total for federal rental assistance is $46.55 billion, $21.55 billion of which came from the American Rescue Plan Act, President Joe Biden's pandemic recovery plan. Though it hasn't all been spent yet, Salazar said there will be an end to it.

"I think that is starting to sink in for people that there are limited resources that the federal government allocated," she said.

"The federal program will sunset at some point. What we do not want to do is pull the rug out from under tenants and landlords still hurting and have not been able to receive assistance. There is a need to think about how we transition out of COVID to a future state where there are some rental assistance resources and housing stability services available."

Parties disagree

Meanwhile. the parties have squabbled over whether the Legislature needs a special session. The argument may be academic, because it was the governor who called it.

But Republican legislative leaders say they do not want action to extend legal protections against evictions.

"The Emergency Board was created for these kinds of urgent situations," said Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp of Bend in a statement. "If the presiding officers convened an Emergency Board meeting, we can come together on a bipartisan basis to get help to those who need it and avoid any negative consequences of a special session."

Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson of Prineville, the new House Republican leader, said she does not want a special session to introduce other issues.

"The drawn-out process of an uncertain special session is not the answer," she said. "Let's make Oregonians a priority by expediting relief."

But in a statement of their own, the Democratic leaders of the two housing committees say the protections are necessary — and only the full Legislature can approve them.

The statement by Rep. Julie Fahey of Eugene and Sen. Kayse Jama of Portland said:

"The Legislature passed these safe harbor protections nearly unanimously in June with Senate Bill 278 because we all agreed that no one should be evicted while rental assistance is on the way.

"Extending these protections should be a bipartisan solution to help Oregonians in need. This can only be done during a special session. The Emergency Board does not have the authority to extend these protections and keep people housed.

"We share the desire to provide more rental assistance that will protect tenants and support housing providers who have sacrificed so much over the last 18 months. That is why our proposed solution also includes $190 million for additional rental assistance and eviction prevention services, and ensures the Landlord Guarantee Fund covers any unpaid rent owed to a landlord during the safe harbor.

"People's lives and well-being are on the lines. As public servants, we made a commitment to keep Oregonians housed during the pandemic and support housing providers. That is what we will show up to Salem to do on Dec. 13."

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