‘Clear common sense’: Board taps surplus funds to help 3,400 households avoid eviction, while accelerating work to help people leave streets for housing

December 16, 2022

Bienestar de la Familia's rent assistance eviction prevention team.
The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Dec. 15 unanimously approved $15 million to help as many as 3,400 households avoid homelessness over the next six months — drawing from Supportive Housing Services Measure funds to shore up eviction-prevention programs expanded during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The infusion for rent assistance was among a handful of budget adjustments put forward by the Joint Office of Homeless Services, reflecting $28.6 million in one-time-only funds created by a mix of carryover resources and unexpectedly large tax collections from businesses and high earners. 

Beyond approving the rent assistance funds, the Board also unanimously agreed to invest in programs that will help accelerate work that housed 4,560 people out of homelessness in the last fiscal year. 

  • The Joint Office will spend $1.1 million to make it easier for more than 300 households experiencing chronic homelessness to lease new supportive housing apartments opening next year by paying for move-in costs such as security deposits and other needs.
  • An additional $120,000 will help 87 households pay for move-in and application costs that are not currently covered by federal Emergency Housing Vouchers, filling a gap that can prevent people from using these resources more quickly.
  • Finally, the Board placed $12.38 million into a short-term contingency fund, allowing them to address other gaps or any other emerging issues next year. Any spending from contingency funding will require a public vote.

“Today’s vote is one significant way to meet the moment we are in,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “We have the obligation to do what we can to provide support and stability to those families who have been knocked on their backs, as they continue to work to get back on their feet.” 

“I want to clearly state I am strongly supportive of the investments we’re making today,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said.

She also said, as the chair-elect, that she will work with her fellow commissioners and others after her term begins Jan. 1, 2023, to chart the best path for the contingency funding.

“I am appreciative of the opportunity to continue conversations with my colleagues on the Board and with other partners — like the cities and Metro and the State — on how the additional funding will be spent, and if there are opportunities to leverage the dollars,” she said. “I am ready to engage in deep conversations… to make support available strategically, transparently and urgently.”

Rent assistance to prevent thousands of evictions

Officials from the Department of County Human Services and the Joint Office briefed the Board last month about a growing gap between the need for rent assistance in the community and the funding available to help keep people housed.

At the end of the Nov. 8 briefing, Chair Kafoury urged commissioners to commit to filling some of that gap with one-time funding that became available this fall. Her comments preceded a request by the City of Portland for additional County funding to support eviction prevention.

Since then, news coverage has noted a spike in evictions, especially with the expiration of state-level protections put in place during the pandemic. Without those protections, renters have just three days to contest evictions and avail themselves of emergency rent assistance through the County and its partners, down from 10 days.

“It’s important for us to get that money out the door as quickly as possible,” Commissioner Lori Stegmann said. “I’m really concerned about the three-day eviction period.” 

With so many households being shoved off what she called an “eviction cliff,” she urged the Oregon Legislature to step in and add more time for people to seek help.

“Everybody has to work together and row in the right direction,” she said. “How do we help people in three days? Even if we have the money, we don’t have the time.”

Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said 5,000 evictions overall have been filed so far this year. Other commissioners cited reports showing more than 800 eviction filings in Multnomah County in October, up from an average of 500 a month in 2019. Of those evictions in October, 92% were for unpaid rent.

“Homelessness isn’t a static emergency like a tornado or a flash flood,” Jayapal said. “As devastating as those disasters are, they are bounded in time. Homelessness is ongoing and systemic. If we don’t prevent more people from becoming homeless, we will never stop the flow. 

“It seems like clear common sense when we’re dealing with a homelessness crisis not to pump another 3,400 households onto the streets.”

The newly approved $15 million for eviction prevention will be combined with $29 million previously allocated by the Board this year. Those combined County-directed funds join $21 million allocated by the State of Oregon and $2.1 million from the City of Portland, for a total of $67.5 million.

Almost two-thirds of funding for eviction prevention will now come from Multnomah County.

“I support emergency rent assistance and rent assistance as a whole in general. And I appreciate this Board’s ongoing recognition of that need,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran said. “One of the greatest things that we can do as a commission is work to prevent people from becoming houseless in the first place.”

A network of roughly 30 organizations, with most focused on providing culturally specific services, will remain the lead mechanism for distributing that rent assistance, said Peggy Samolinski, director of the County’s Youth and Family Services Division.

County programs including Bienestar de la Familia also play a major role. The County also funds eviction defense work, in addition to rent assistance, through partners including the Oregon Law Center. 

“Think of it like putting fuel into an engine that's already well-tuned and humming along, successfully helping thousands of people stay in their housing,” said Yesenia Delgado, the program manager supporting the Supportive Housing Services Measure for the Joint Office. “Why do we need more funding now? We don't want to run out of gas before we get to the finish line.”

Speeding up housing placements for hundreds more people

A smaller portion of the $28.6 million total will support client assistance programs to accelerate existing efforts that help people experiencing homelessness move from the streets and from shelters into housing.

In fiscal year 2022, the Joint Office helped 4,560 people into housing out of homelessness; of those placements, 1,129 were possible thanks to the Supportive Housing Services Measure.

Delgado said the $1.1 million in funding approved Thursday will provide flexible client assistance — paying for needs like applications, security deposits, move-in costs, and any past bills or utility arrears — to help people moving into new supportive housing developments coming online in 2023.

The funds will support as many as 316 households served in 13 new buildings funded by the Portland and Metro housing construction bonds. The new buildings focus on providing deeply affordable apartments for people leaving homelessness who have behavioral health needs, who have families and who are seeking culturally specific services. 

Households will be identified through the Joint Office’s by-name “Coordinated Access” list of people experiencing chronic homelessness who are assessed for supportive housing. Multnomah County’s Local Implementation Plan for the Supportive Housing Services Measure requires programs to prioritize people who are chronically homeless and sets goals for creating new housing opportunities to support them. 

“Based on who shows up in and is prioritized by our Coordinated Access system, the vast majority will be coming from unsheltered situations or shelter,” Delgado said. “Supporting households with lease-up costs will ensure that folks get into apartments that support their needs and ensure people are able to stay housed.” 

“It will have the direct impact of moving people off the streets,” Commissioner Jayapal said. “It would be penny-wise and pound-foolish not to provide it.”

An additional $120,000 approved Thursday will allow housing services providers to help nearly 90 households make faster use of the County’s supply of nearly 500 federal Emergency Housing Vouchers. 

The federal vouchers have been a helpful boost for the Joint Office’s housing placement work. But the vouchers often aren’t enough on their own to quickly end someone’s homelessness. That’s because they pay only for direct rent assistance, leaving it up to local governments to fund other essentials, including wraparound services, basic household items and support with lease-up costs.

“These vouchers provide an ongoing subsidy, but there’s no funds to support the work to lease up people who are in need of the rent assistance,” Delgado said.

Those limits, among other challenges, initially slowed work to distribute the vouchers last year. But in recent months, Commissioner Vega Pederson said, the Joint Office and partners like Home Forward have been “outpacing other cities” when it comes to using the vouchers.  

“Every one of those vouchers represents a person, a couple or a family who will be able to move off our streets and find and keep safe, affordable housing,” she said. 

Chair Kafoury called Thursday’s budget vote the “smart thing, the right thing, to do.“ And she connected it to the Joint Office’s ongoing work to expand and improve shelter in Multnomah County. 

Following the budget vote, the Board unanimously approved extending three motel shelter leases and a construction plan for an expanded Arbor Lodge Shelter in North Portland.

“All these interventions — rent assistance, permanent supportive housing, motel-based emergency shelters, and many other parts of our system — take real, intentional and sustained work to build up,” Chair Kafoury said. 

“I want to thank everyone who has been working so hard to stand up a system of care that can address the unique needs of our unhoused neighbors in ways that center their voices and experiences."