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Northwest Oregon Housing Authority has gotten vouchers out to Columbia, Clatsop and Tillamook county residents

COURTESY: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT - With 253 units leased out of 1,582 emergency housing vouchers, Oregon has a utilization rate of 16% as of Dec. 26.In May 2021, the federal government announced the distribution of nearly 70,000 emergency housing vouchers to public housing authorities to pay a portion of the rent for individuals or families who lack safe housing or are at risk of losing their housing.

In the months since, Northwest Oregon Housing Authority, which serves Columbia, Tillamook and Clatsop counties, has gotten more than 21% of its vouchers to people who are now in stable housing.

That puts NOHA far ahead of the national average of 9% and Oregon's average of 16%, according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development dashboard.

Once someone is found eligible for a voucher, they still have to find an apartment or other home to rent. In Northwest Oregon Housing Authority's region, 14 voucher recipients have moved into housing, while another 17 are still searching, Jim Evans, NOHA's interim executive director, said on Dec. 21.

Evans said that the housing authority was generally "on pace with where we thought we would be at this point," in distributing the vouchers.

"The thing that's sort of out of NOHA's control is how quickly the community action agencies make the referrals to us," Evans said.

In Columbia County, the housing authority receives referrals from Community Action Team.

Heather Johnson, Community Action Team's housing department manager, said that referring someone to a housing program isn't as simple as determining if they're eligible or not.

"Vulnerable individuals and people experiencing homelessness often have a number of barriers that may hinder a successful housing intervention without the proper supports in place," Johnson explained.

CAT works through the coordinated entry system, which uses a standardized assessment to determine what housing support and other services an applicant needs.

"This process and the processes of connecting vulnerable individuals with the resources needed to support them in housing is not simple and is quite time consuming," Johnson said, adding that the pandemic has increased the time and effort required.

Gathering the required documents can be a hurdle — particularly for people who have experienced homelessness or frequent moves and haven't been able to keep important documents intact or organized.

NOHA has up to 26 more vouchers available that haven't been officially assigned.

"Some may view the referral process as being slow but the reality is, all the vouchers have been tentatively assigned, they are just in various stages of the process," Johnson said.

To evaluate a potential voucher recipient, NOHA has to review pay stubs, bank information, documentation of medical or childcare expenses and more. Evans said vouchers can usually be issued within 30 days if the application comes with most of that information gathered — "and the community action agencies have been great partners in making that happen," he added.

Evans and Johnson both said the relatively small number of vacant rental units is one of the obstacles in getting people into homes. Landlords in Oregon are prohibited from discriminating against potential tenants because they will use a voucher.

"Landlords are generally willing to accept the voucher program and the families if they have units available, but you know, we've got a very high occupancy rate right now. There's not a lot of availability in the market," Evans said.

"There is a severe housing shortage in our three-county area. While one may receive a voucher, housing still needs to be identified and that too is a role that falls on our agencies," Johnson said.

NOHA also distributes housing choice vouchers, commonly known as Section 8, with roughly 1,040 vouchers in use in the three-county region and a years-long waitlist.

Both voucher programs work with private landlords, covering the majority of the rent on qualified units, while the tenants contribute at least 30% of their income.

Though both voucher programs are generally for low-income renters, the specific criteria differ. The emergency housing vouchers can also be used by people fleeing domestic violence, stalking and related crimes.

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