Calls for a special session of Oregon lawmakers to put in place protective measures for renters waiting to find out if they can get federal aid to avoid an eviction grew louder Wednesday.
A letter signed by leaders of more than 50 organizations – including tenant advocacy groups, labor unions, local housing authorities, counties, cities and other social services – urged Governor Kate Brown, Senate President Peter Courtney and House spokeswoman Tina Kotek to grant unpaid rents prevent evictions.
The tenant protection, which was passed earlier this year, has expired or is about to expire for approximately 12,000 Oregon households. The state emergency rental assistance program has more than $ 200 million in federal funding to help Oregon residents stay housed, but the state agency responsible for distributing the funds is lagging behind.
This means that even if the state rushes to get its hands on checks, these households could be evicted.
“There are also more than 15,000 additional applications in the system, waiting to be reviewed and approaching their expiration dates every day. Nationwide, this means that more than 27,000 households are threatened with eviction due to processing delays as winter is approaching, ”the letter said. “This is unacceptable.”
List of groups signing Wednesday’s letter includes Oregon Law Center, Oregon Housing Alliance, Housing Oregon, Metro, Washington County, Lane County, Clackamas Women’s Services, Home Forward, Join PDX, Metropolitan Family Services, AFSCME Council 75 , SEIU Local 503, the City of Beaverton, the City of Bend and many others.
Democrats, Senator Kayse Jama and Rep. Julie Fahey, chair the two legislative housing committees charged with finding solutions for housing Oregonians. They’re also the chief architects of Senate Law 278, which was passed earlier this year, which took a 60-day hiatus from the eviction process for tenants who could prove they had filed an application for federal rent allowance.
But now the 60-day “safe haven” has expired for many tenants waiting months for Oregon Housing and Community Services and their community partners to process a historically large number of applications.
More than $ 300 million has been requested from more than 38,000 households who continue to struggle to pay and repay rent due to the economic hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past 18 months.
In an update to the legislature in early October, the OHCS leaders said it could take 10 to 13 weeks for the state agency to catch up with the massive backlog of applications.
But tenant protection agencies and housing attorneys continue to sound the alarm that there is not enough time for those who are running out of protection.
This has resulted in local elected officials and housing service providers joining forces for a special session to address the growing crisis.
Jama and Fahey wrote their own letter to the governor asking her to stop the eviction again. But, according to Brown, the way SB 278 was written prevents them from using their powers to act independently in extending protection.
“The governor continues to work with lawmakers to explore possible solutions, but for now all solutions to eviction-related issues must be enacted in partnership with lawmakers as part of the legislative process,” said Charles Boyle, Brown’s assistant director of communications.
Now, Jama and Fahey are working with a group of tenant advocacy and landlord organizations to review ideas for lawmakers to consider in a special session. Legislative leaders, including Kotek, are also involved in these discussions tweeted her approval for a special session last week.
“Everyone has worked hard and fixed problem areas as they arise. It is an enormous task and we are in an extremely difficult time, ”said Jama on Wednesday. “The need for housing assistance was significant before the pandemic, and that just got (truer). I’m working with Chairman Fahey and leadership to make sure OHCS has what they need so we can keep the Oregonians in their homes. “
What could a special session cover?
Jama said there are three specific areas that lawmakers would like to address in a special session.
The first is to fix the application system to ensure that requests for help are processed as quickly as possible and controls are dismantled in a timely manner.
The second is to identify additional sources of funding to replenish money spent processing applications; Nearly 1,600 new applications, valued at $ 10 million, are filed each week.
Finally, lawmakers could put in place new safeguards to ensure those waiting for their applications to be processed are not expelled while the state has money to help house them.
“We need to make sure those awaiting approval and funding stay housed,” said Jama. “Otherwise it would create an even bigger emergency.”
Jama and other lawmakers have continued to highlight the fact that the pandemic and housing instability have hit Oregon’s low-income families and color communities hardest.
According to the US census “pulse data” collected between September 29 and October 11, more than 67,000 Oregon households will be unable to pay rent for the next month.
Jama said that ensuring housing stability, especially for households with black, indigenous and colored people, is currently one of the most important tasks of the state.
Concerns have been expressed as to whether the political backlash following the redistribution efforts that took place in Salem in September could have repercussions for the further work of the legislature.
Jama said he was confident the legislature can do its job to protect those facing eviction and not to plunge the state into an even deeper crisis.
“We are examining a lot of ideas on how we can improve the system. All ideas are on the table. We receive input from stakeholders and have great faith in the conversations, ”said Jama. “Oregonians have come together again and again to find solutions to major crises, and it’s no different.”