Commissioners briefed on rent assistance as Senate Bill 891 goes into effect

January 13, 2022

Housing officials briefed the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, Jan. 11, about the pace of their work providing rent assistance, delivering an update on the ongoing effort to protect thousands of households from eviction during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I know the work you’re doing is setting people’s minds at ease, and it’s life saving and life changing,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said.

The briefing comes less than a month after the Oregon Legislature adjourned a special session where they approved Senate Bill 891 and allocated an additional $11 million of rent assistance to Multnomah County.

Under SB 891, Oregon renters who apply for rent assistance and provide documentation to their landlord before July 1, 2022, are covered by “safe harbor” protections from eviction until their assistance application is processed, up until Sept. 30, 2022

The update also comes weeks after the State of Oregon put a pause on its online rent assistance portal, leaving locally funded resources to hold the line. In response, 211 has re-opened a central point of access for rent assistance, in partnership with Multnomah County and several local nonprofit organizations. 211 triages these calls and then send referrals to these organizations, who then follow up with tenants. 

But another urgent deadline is looming for some renters, experts warned. After Feb. 28, 2022, a state grace period will end for tenants who owe back rent from April 2020 to June 2021. With that deadline looming, experts are expecting a surge of rent assistance applications. Tenants are urged to call 2-1-1 if they are unable to pay rent or if they receive an eviction notice.

“We’re going to start to see, in the next couple of months, probably a big crunch of rent owed and people scrambling to apply for assistance who have not been doing so before, because their only rent owed is back debt,” said Becky Straus, managing attorney of the Oregon Law  Center’s Eviction Prevention Project.

Eviction court cases drop following SB 891

Eviction court cases in Multnomah County surged to about 70 the first week of December. At that time, Straus said, tenants were exceeding the County’s 90-day safe harbor eviction prevention window, and rent assistance was not being distributed quickly enough. 

Since the passage of SB 891, eviction cases have slowed to about 30 to 40 per week. Of those, roughly 40% are “set over,” Straus said, meaning that the tenant has proven they have applied for rent assistance. About a third of cases are dismissed entirely.

Still, a concerning 22% of cases are resulting in default. That could be for many reasons, shared Straus, including transportation barriers, technology access issues, or the tenant having already moved out of their home.

“Those are very disappointing, preventable outcomes for tenants who should have been able to access the rent assistance available to them,” Straus said.

The County and its partners have been working to prevent such evictions — and make default cases as rare as possible — since the beginning of the pandemic. For months, Multnomah County case workers and others have knocked on doors, engaged with tenants with court cases, including at the courthouse, and helped renters apply for assistance.

Rapid response eviction prevention strategy works to keep renters housed 

The County’s current eviction prevention strategy is threefold: promote access to services, provide support with applications and rent assistance payments, and offer legal aid as needed. 

These efforts are focused in three areas where tenants are at a higher risk of losing their stable house: those who have an eviction notice for non-payment of rent; tenants who appear in court and face eviction, and those who are on the Court docket and who have not responded to outreach. County case workers visit the Court to engage with tenants facing eviction. They also knock on doors to connect with tenants directly in their homes and connect them with  rent assistance, legal support, or other social services as needed.

Since July 1, Bienestar de la Familia, a program of Multnomah County, has processed 1,530 rent assistance applications from 211 and the court system. Of the applications initiated, 1,104 have received rent assistance, totaling about $3 million. 

Bienestar caseworkers have also visited nearly 700 households facing eviction. In some cases, those households have missed the deadline to apply for rent assistance. At that point, the County looks into other options, including delivering rent payments to the tenant’s landlord before the trial date.

Bienestar also has two counselors who provide emotional support to tenants at risk of eviction. 

“These families are really struggling, whether going through depression or anxiety or trauma-related stress,” said Nabil Zaghoul, the Bienestar program manager. “A lot of folks have signed up for the service and found it to be valuable.” 

In December, Bienestar held a staff appreciation event acknowledging nearly two years of work to prevent evictions due to COVID-19. For many caseworkers, it was the first time meeting their teammates in person. Commissioner Sharon Meieran helped deliver certificates of appreciation to Bienestar staff.

“I just want to add my deep appreciation,” Commissioner Meieran said during Tuesday’s briefing. “It was one of the most inspiring events that I have been at, and the people doing this work are incredible.”

County and partners step up after State closes Allita portal

Allita, the State’s centralized online rent assistance portal, closed for at least six weeks starting Dec. 1. That has not stopped the County from providing support and assistance to tenants who had an open application, said Stephanie Simmons, who manages the Department of County Human Services team charged with processing applications that come through the Allita portal. 

When the County receives a call or email from 211 about somebody at risk of eviction, a specialist triages it and logs it onto a spreadsheet. From there, a supervisor assigns each case to a County eligibility specialist. The team has served more than 2,300 families since Dec. 2. 

“The portal closed at midnight on Dec. 1, and the very next day we began really doing this huge outreach to make sure that we’re getting back to folks,” Simmons said. “We’re working really hard. This team has been really agile, flexible and also able to offer different resource referrals to other things that callers may need.” 

With 4,500 incomplete applications remaining when Allita closed, Commissioner Susheela Jayapal asked whether there is an effort to connect those applicants with services and assistance. “What are we doing with those on a systematic level?” she asked.

“We are right now creating a prioritization,” Simmons said, noting plans to take some or all of the $11 million recently allocated by the State to “actually process those applications all the way through.”

A network of more than 40 community partners has also continued to serve renters by distributing rent assistance and providing culturally specific support, mental health resources, food, school-based outreach and other services. All together, these organizations have distributed more than $20 million to about 5,000 households, since July 1.

The last local allocation of Federal Emergency Rent Assistance is now in the community - or about  $31 million of City and County funding is being distributed to the community. On average, the organizations are distributing about $1 million of rent assistance each week — about $4,000 per household.

“Thank you all for a very detailed, comprehensive overview of all of the rental assistance work that’s been going through the community,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson told the presenters. “There’s so much work going on here. It’s really fantastic.”

“You are really doing incredible work and making such a huge difference in folks’ lives,” Commissioner Lori Stegmann said. “I’m a huge fan and greatly appreciative.”

Omicron impact underscores concerns of two-tiered recovery

Requests for rent assistance have expanded in the last two to three weeks, said Yesenia Delgado with the Joint Office of Homeless Services. That may be connected to a fresh surge COVID-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant and its impact on labor, schools and childcare, Delgado said.

“We continue to see evidence of a two-tiered recovery with disparity in communities of color,” Delgado said. “Some of the hardest hit by the pandemic recession are the same groups who took the longest to experience the labor market expansion, including Black, Native American and younger workers.”

Delgado said the impact of the economic recovery is contingent on work to stop the spread of COVID-19. Looking ahead, there remains significant uncertainty over how COVID-19 will continue to impact communities — especially renters who identify as Black, Indigenous and people of color. 

Teams are working on estimating the future need for rent assistance in the County and budgeting accordingly. 

“The increase in rent and the number of people who are struggling to stay housed and who are unstably housed is just growing,” Chair Kafoury said. “I think that it paints an unfortunate picture, but it’s a picture we need to realize as we’re looking towards making policy in the future.