BOCC 7/8/21 - Resolution Extending SB 278

The recurring theme of the public health briefings we’ve received over the past several weeks has been that although for many of us, it feels as if we’ve finally emerged from the pandemic, for many others, it is not over. For the still significant number of people who are not vaccinated, the health risk continues. And for those who lost their jobs or saw their income reduced, the economic impact of COVID 19 also continues. That continuing economic impact is reflected in  Portland State University’s recent estimate that almost 60,000 households across the state do not think they can pay their next month’s rent.

That recognition that the pandemic is not over is why, last month, we voted to extend our emergency declaration through December 31, 2021. As stated in the findings of the resolution extending the emergency we passed on June 24, “COVID-19 continues to pose a significant and potentially catastrophic threat to every resident of Multnomah County.” 

The threat of eviction is a significant and potentially catastrophic threat faced by thousands - and potentially tens of thousands -- of Multnomah County renters. Those renters most at risk for eviction are also those who continue to be most at risk for COVID. National data shows that the neighborhoods with the highest eviction rates are those with the lowest vaccination rates. Renters of color are likely to be the most at risk of eviction, and people of color - especially Black and Latinx people -- continue to be those most at risk for COVID. As we heard in our public health briefing last week, for example, Black/African American people were 40% less likely to be immunized than white people. They were also twice as likely to test positive and 80% more likely to be hospitalized. These renters continue to face both a public health emergency and an economic emergency. 

For all of these reasons, I believe the state should have extended its eviction moratorium; and that we should have re-instated our own. The pandemic isn’t over, and neither is the emergency we were trying to avoid when we first instituted our moratorium. We wouldn’t have been alone: Washington and California have extended their moratoriums, as have San Francisco and Los Angeles counties, and the city of Seattle, among others.

Instead, we have SB 278, and the ordinance we’re voting on today.

SB 278’s purpose is to provide more time to get rent assistance out to people who have applied for it. Given Multnomah County’s disproportionate share of the 15,000 households who have applied, and the system expansion required to push out $100 million of rent assistance, the 30 day extension is warranted.

That said, I am very concerned that while the extension is necessary, it is still not sufficient. This isn’t a criticism of the really hard work that DCHS and the chair's office have done to create systems that provide as much protection as possible. Rather, it’s about the fact that SB 278 is complicated and confusing, as are the multiple pathways for accessing rent assistance. I think of the time I have spent trying to understand how this will all actually work -- and I have the advantage of speaking English, and being a lawyer -- and we know that tenants are going to have trouble understanding it, and also have trouble taking the necessary steps to qualify for its protection. We already know that a significant proportion of those who start to apply for rent assistance through the state’s Allita system abandon the effort before completion; those who don’t make it through will not qualify for SB 278’s protection, and will be subject to eviction.

I’ve heard some questions about why people who need rent assistance might still not have applied for it. Language, time, lack of access to technology and social media, fear of connecting with government systems -- all these issues and others, are barriers. Providers have told me that every day, they are contacted by people who do not yet know that rent assistance is available. SB 278 does provide some provision for people who haven’t yet applied, in the form of notices and grace periods, but again, we know that those kinds of safeguards too often don’t end up protecting our most marginalized communities.

I do sympathize with landlords who are concerned that our action today will create further delay for them -  particularly small landlords.  I know that they too have faced hardship through the pandemic. But the rent assistance that’s being distributed will ultimately flow to them; and SB 278 provided increased protection for landlords as well, by increasing from 80% to 100% the amount of past-due rent they can collect from the state’s landlord reimbursement fund, and by compensating them for upcoming unpaid rent even if they end up evicting their tenants. 

At the end of the day there are no complete solutions to the magnitude of the housing crisis created by COVID - at least none that are in this Board’s power; and in weighing our choices, we have to continue to focus on our most vulnerable residents -- tenants who are at risk of houselessness -- in order to avoid the associated costs, both in dollars, and in human suffering.