Council supports expanding utility relief program
The City Council expressed support for expanding the utility relief program operated by the Portland Water Bureau on Tuesday.
The program helps low-income residents pay their water and sewer bills. During a Feb. 13 work session, the council indicated it was willing to increase the amount and availability of the assistance in next year's budget — including providing up to $500 a year to renters in apartments without individual water meters.
"Too many renters are having trouble paying their water and sewer bills," said Commissioner Nick Fish, who is on charge both bureaus and presented the proposal to the council.
According to charts presented at the work session, the number of households earning less than $25,000 a year has fallen in Portland since 2005 but the number earning between $25,000 and $75,000 has remained pretty much the same. Except for Asians, minority households are most likely to be in poverty, the charts showed.
Under the existing program, the bureau has been discounting water and sewer bills for low-income customers in single-family homes by up to 50 percent since 1994. But it has not been providing such relief to similar renters in apartments, despite years of study.
An October 2017 audit of existing program by the City Auditor's Office recommended the city study how to extend assistance to multi-family renters.
Relatively few residents use the existing relief options now. The water bureau has approximately 160,000 customers. But, according to the presentation, only about 6,600 are having their bills discounted and only around 2,400 are receiving crisis assistance. An additional 85,000 are paying off previous bills in installments.
To provide more relief, Fish has proposed providing up to $600,000 in utility funds to such renters at risk of being evicted because they cannot pay their rent, which includes utility costs set by their landlords. The funds would be channeled through Home Forward, the former Portland Housing Authority, which administers an existing rental assistance program in Multnomah County. Renters would be required to apply for the assistance and be certified as eligible.
Fish also proposed using the local median family income (MFI) instead of the state's to qualify customers. For a single person at 60 percent of MFI, the income threshold would increase from $23,095 to $31,380.
And Fish proposed increasing the maximum amount of crisis assistance from $150 to $500 a year. The amount was last raised from $75 in 2004.
Fish told the council the City Attorney's Office has advised the expanded program would be legal under the City Charter. The city settled a longrunning civil lawsuit over questionable utility spending late last year.
With the council's support, Fish said a more detailed version of the expansion will be presented during a March work session on the water bureau's budget. An intergovernmental agreement with Home Forward will be drafted by May. Other community partners who will provide information for the program include the Portland Housing Bueau, the Joint Office of Homeless Services, Human Solutions, Elders in Action.