Rental aid payments are approved, but big backlog persists

More than 22,000 seek $161 million as Oregon nears halfway point in 60-day grace period for evictions
By PETER WONG Oregon Capital Bureau 

Community action agencies have made their first payments to landlords under the Oregon emergency rental assistance program.

But according to a dashboard maintained by the Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services, payments still lag far behind the number of completed applications by tenants and the amount of aid they have requested from the program.

As of Monday, community action agencies have approved payments for 1,260 of 22,083 completed applications, about 6%. The total of $7.75 million is barely 5% of the $160.9 million requested so far.

Although the state agency oversees the program, it has turned to community action agencies to do much of the payment work.

Oregon's moratorium on residential evictions ended June 30, although a national moratorium continues through Saturday. It is uncertain whether the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issued the original moratorium, will continue it.

State lawmakers did pass two bills before the close of their 2021 session to ease the transition.

One (Senate Bill 278) bars landlords from initiating evictions for 60 days if tenants provide proof they have applied for rental assistance. In Multnomah County, that period runs for 90 days, not 60 days, because of board action July 1.

Oregon is nearing the 30-day mark of that 60-day grace period.

The other law (Senate Bill 282) gives tenants until Feb. 28, 2022, to pay past-due rent owed between April 1, 2020, and June 30 of this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. It does not forgive past-due rent, and it requires tenants to remain current on rent after June 30.

The vast majority of Oregon applicants (12,000) seek money both for past-due rent and rent due in July or later.

Vouchers scarce
A national think tank, the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, estimates that 11.4 million adults nationally are in danger of facing evictions if the federal moratorium ends and federal rental assistance fails to flow fast enough through states and local agencies.

"This falls heavily on renters of color," Sharon Parrott, the center's president, said in a conference call with reporters July 22. "States and localities are well positioned to take steps to avert widespread evictions."

The conference call focused on a new report by the center that calls for increased federal spending on housing-choice vouchers, which low-income tenants, older people and people with disabilities can use to shop for their own rental housing. The vouchers are supposed to fill the gap between income and rent, but according to the report — based on data by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which supplies the money — only about 10% of those eligible obtain vouchers and a total of 25% get any housing aid at all.

"Millions of people in this country understand that hardship and stress," Sonia Acosta, a housing policy analyst and one of the report's authors, said. "The lack of funding means that millions of people who are eligible for housing vouchers never receive them. Those in the queue often wait years for help."

Of the top 50 regional housing agencies across the nation, the report says just two have waiting periods of less than a year, and for more than half of the agencies, the wait exceeds two years. Looking at detailed data for 500 agencies, Washington County's wait time is 13 months, and Clackamas County, 23 months. Multnomah County's agency, Home Forward, isn't even listed; a lottery is conducted every two or three years for places on the waiting list.

"To be clear, any wait is too long when you face homelessness or are living in an unsafe place," Acosta said.

Will Fischer, senior director for housing policy and research, said the obvious response is for President Joe Biden and Congress to put more money into housing-choice vouchers in economic recovery programs.

"All the evidence suggests that if Congress provided a large expansion of the voucher program, agencies would be able to put that to use," he said.

Merkley: Do more
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley said details need to be worked out, but the recent agreement by the Senate's majority Democrats on a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation does allow for "several hundred billion" for housing in the federal budget year that ends in fall 2022.

The Oregon Democrat has laid out his own housing proposal, which calls for $700 billion over a decade. He said its timing was intended to coincide with the debate over the 2022 budget.

"I hope the details are going to look a lot like my HOME Act, which invests in many different aspects to create more housing and make it more affordable for so many Americans who are struggling," he said on Friday, July 23.

Though his proposal does set aside more money for vouchers, Merkley said, any housing plan has to go beyond them.

"Here's the challenge: Even though we have vouchers now, often people can't use them," he said. "They can't find apartments within that cost because there is such a shortage of apartments."

When Merkley presented his proposal June 29, he said it met a need that is not abstract to most Americans.

"No matter where you travel around the country, people are talking about housing. It is everywhere. It is not just a central city, suburban or rural concern," he said then. "The question is about how we make the appropriate investment in response. The answer is to seize the infrastructure movement. We have to think of housing as part of our national infrastructure."