November 29, 2022

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Oregon’s emergency rental assistance funds dwindling | State-and-regional

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Oregon is poised by the end of June to commit the $30 million remaining in federal and state money for emergency rental assistance.

State housing officials told lawmakers on Wednesday, June 1, that the state and a network of community action agencies already have spent or committed a total of $363.4 million in the past year to help pay rent for 55,656 households statewide.

Helping an average of 2.2 persons per household, they said the money has kept more than 100,000 people from becoming homeless during the coronavirus pandemic that started more than two years ago.

The average payment per household was $6,400. The money was paid to landlords.

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“A one-time payment keeps a family in their home, and a landlord is made whole,” Andrea Bell, director of the Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services, said. “It saves the community three to four times the value of the rental assistance, if the family had become homeless.”

Bell and Jill Smith, interim director of housing stabilization, spoke at a meeting of the House Committee on Housing. They scheduled a more detailed presentation Thursday, June 2 to the counterpart committee in the Senate.

The agency issued a status report the day before the House committee meeting.

Bell said an agency analysis of the payments came to these other conclusions:

  • Low income: 85% of the payments helped families with households at 50% or less of the area median income of $96,900. For the year ended on March 31, that 50% figure was at $48,350 for the seven-county Portland metropolitan area as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, which included Clark and Skamania counties in Washington state.
  • Race and ethnicity: 60% of the households helped were white, 15% Latino, 12% Black, 5% two or more races, 4% Native American, 2% Asian, 1% Native Hawaiian.

Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties accounted for 49.1% of the more than 100,000 households applying for assistance — some applications are duplicates — and 50.9% of those paid, for $205.8 million, or 57% of the $363.4 million paid out.

According to data kept by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, Oregon was second only to New York in spending or committing its share of federal money for emergency rental assistance — and Oregon did its $289 million well before two federal deadlines. California ranked fourth.

Some of the federal money came in legislation that Donald Trump signed a few weeks before he left the presidency in January 2021, and the rest from the American Rescue Plan Act that President Joe Biden signed on March 11, 2021.

The Oregon Legislature also approved $100 million for emergency rental assistance from the current two-year state budget. (The Legislature also set aside $200 million during a December 2020 special session, but that money was spent by the close of the 2019-21 budget on June 30, 2021. That amount is not counted.)

Not much left

Of the $30 million remaining, about $17.5 million came from U.S. Treasury reallocation of federal money left unspent by other states and communities, and the rest from unspent funds by Oregon’s community action agencies. Some Oregon cities and counties got direct allocations from the Treasury, and those programs may still offer rental assistance.

Oregon paused emergency rental assistance on Dec. 1, reopened its online portal on Jan. 26, and closed it again on March 21.

Smith said about 6,000 households that received rental assistance for 11 months or less were allowed to apply for what remains in the emergency fund. The average request was for $3,200.

She said the remaining money will be paid based on need — including census tract, family size and household income — and not on which family filed first.

Of the more than 100,000 applications filed before the deadline, the agency reported about a third (34%) were found ineligible or declined, duplicate or withdrawn.

The Legislature passed a separate law at a special session Dec. 13 to set Sept. 30 of this year as the end of the grace period for pending rental assistance payments. Landlords cannot initiate eviction proceedings for nonpayment during that period if tenants inform them they have applied for assistance.

No moves are pending in Congress or the Legislature to extend emergency rental assistance.

Asked by Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond, what happens next, Bell and Smith said more than $600 million in federal and state money will go toward prevention of evictions. 

Although some will go to a much-reduced program of rental assistance, they said money will go to enable Oregon’s network of community action agencies to act on their own. Among them are agencies in each of the three metro counties, one for three northwest Oregon counties, one each for Marion and Yamhill counties, and one for the three Central Oregon counties.

For Multnomah County, it’s $8.16 million; Clackamas County, $2.66 million; Washington County, $1.7 million; Clatsop, Columbia and Tillamook counties, $1.2 million; Yamhill County, $893,700, and NeighborImpact of Central Oregon, $2.1 million.

Other money will go to mediation services, legal services and case management, mostly done by other local organizations.

Bell said emergency rental assistance was the first large-scale statewide program in which the state agency made direct payments, even with help from community action agencies. She said its historic role has been to steer money to others.  

“That historically has not been the core way we have done our work,” she said of the assistance program. “There has been no shortage of learning by us over the past couple of years.”

More housing needed

Housing costs remain high, and Oregon has a continuing shortage of housing considered “affordable,” which by federal definition is 30% or less of household income. More than one in four households spent 50% or more of their income on rent.

An analysis by the Portland firm ECONorthwest showed that of Oregon’s backlog of 111,000 unbuilt housing units during the past two decades, 54,000 are needed for households earning less than 50% of the area median income. 

A regional housing analysis pegs the number required at 580,000 over the next two decades. Lawmakers are awaiting a report from two state agencies, including the housing agency, on how housing can be expanded within Oregon’s land use framework that confines most development within urban growth boundaries.

The state housing plan says Oregon is on track to complete 19,000 of 25,000 “affordable” units, and the state agency says it plans to request $490 million in the 2023-25 budget for more housing. (That budget goes to current Gov. Kate Brown, whose administration will do most of the work, although the incoming governor will have until Feb. 1 to submit changes. The 2023 Legislature, elected on Nov. 8 and opening Jan. 9, will make the final decisions.

Bell said she expects greater momentum for lower-cost housing to go hand in hand with some form of continuing rental assistance.

“There is going to be a continuing need to stabilize our portfolio,” she said.

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