Potential evictions worry Oregon lawmakers, housing officials
Oregon lawmakers and state housing officials are worried that a large number of tenants will lose their homes when the eviction moratorium ends June 30, despite hundreds of millions of federal and state dollars being set aside for rental assistance since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But no one who spoke during a recent Oregon legislative informational hearing on the issue knew exactly how many households are at risk or how much more money is needed to prevent all evictions. Even among experts and advocacy organizations, estimates vary widely.
"We don't have fantastic data," said Jimmy Jones, executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, one of more than 200 community-based organizations helping to distribute the aid.
Despite the increased assistance, Katrina Holland, director of the JOIN social service agency, predicted a wave of evictions starting July 1.
"We have a long way to go to get to a place where we provide assistance to the people who need it," said Holland, who called for the eviction moratorium to be extended.
"If we don't have a way to fix this problem, all of the work the Oregon Legislature has done so far will be for naught," said Sybil Hebb, director of the Oregon Law Center.
The Oregon House Committee on Housing held the hearing Friday, June 4. It was intended to update legislators on how their efforts to minimize pandemic-related evictions are working and what more they need to do. Instead, the hearing revealed a lot of uncertainty about the effectiveness of their previous efforts and whether there will be a wave of evictions when the moratorium ends.
"I am very concerned about what happens after July 1," said state Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, the committee chair.
The Legislature hoped to ease such concerns by passing Senate Bill 282, which extends the repayment period for unpaid residential rent accrued during the until Feb. 28, 2022. But Kim McCarty, director of the Community Alliance of Tenants, estimated that 90,000 households are already at risk of eviction.
Margaret Salazar, executive director of the Oregon Housing and Community Services, said that state-distributed rental assistance has increased tremendously since the start of the pandemic. Until then, no more than $17 million had been spent in a single year, an amount Salazar admitted was not enough to meet the need. Congress approved hundreds of millions of dollars for rental assistance since early 2020, including over $200 million for a new Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program that just launched in May.
"We've gone from $17 million to over $500 million in one year," Salazar said.
Despite that, Salazar and other witnesses admitted there have been problems spending the money. For starters, many renters and landlords do not know the assistance is available or how to apply for it. Application websites also have crashed, causing delays. And some of the application requirements are so complicated, even those who might qualify for assistance have given up trying.
"All of the different [funding] sources have had different requirements, which has been challenging," said Peggy Samolinski, director of the Multnomah County Department County Human Services, Youth and Family Services Division.
Housing officials also were unable to say how quickly the assistance is being processed by the various agencies distributing the funds.
Some of the committee members were frustrated by the answers to their questions.
"It seems we're not getting a lot of specific answers to our questions," said state Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond, at one point.
Representatives of landlords — who prefer to be called housing providers — were frustrated by the slow payments and lack of publicity about the programs.
Deborah Imse, executive director of Multifamily NW, said her organization's monthly survey shows around 13% of households are not paying their rents, causing serious financial problems for many landlords.
"You are not addressing the problem we are facing," Imse said of the hearing.
"Some landlords are selling their rental homes because they cannot make their mortgage payments," said Ron Garcia, director of the Rental Housing Alliance, which represents owners of four or fewer units.
"We need to hire the ad agency that promotes the Oregon Lottery," Garcia said.
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