Experts from the Department of County Human Services and the City of Portland/Multnomah County Joint Office of Homeless Services briefed commissioners on the extraordinary effort to keep people in their homes as our community continues to recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic.
The briefing comes on the heels of numerous policy shifts at federal, state and local levels of government. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown in June signed Senate Bill 278, which provides protection from nonpayment evictions to renters who apply for rent assistance if they provide documentation to their landlords.
Shortly after, the Board of County Commissioners extended those protections an additional 30 days for renters in Multnomah County, giving people 90 days’ protection. The federal government has also extended the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's nationwide moratorium twice.
Tenants in Oregon still cannot be evicted for owing rent for the months between April 2020 and June 2021, and have until Feb. 28, 2022, to pay that rent back.
"But throughout the pandemic, even as the policy landscape has shifted and the State's priorities have changed, the north star guiding our efforts has always been preventing as many evictions as possible," said Chair Deborah Kafoury.
Given the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black, Indigenous and other People of Color (BIPOC), the County has prioritized equity in its emergency rent assistance program. Eighty-two percent of households receiving rent assistance through June identify as BIPOC, translating to 8,468 households, or 23,437 individuals.
“This has truly been an all-hands-on-deck approach to keep as many families and individuals housed,” said Yesenia Delgado, a family system program specialist for the Joint Office of Homeless Services.
Chair Kafoury: State needs to help distribute rent assistance
The County and its partners are distributing rent assistance in three ways: through a community-based application model, through a County-led rapid-response eviction prevention strategy, and through a State rent assistance program known as the Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which processes applications through a State-mandated online portal called Allita.
In a typical year, the County’s rent assistance system distributes about $10 million. The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased the need, requiring the system to grow substantially to keep up. While limited staffing and complex federal guidelines have affected the speed of the rollout, new hiring has given community-based organizations additional capacity to better handle applications.
“We know how critical rent assistance and preventing homelessness and evictions is in this community,” said Peggy Samolinski, who directs the County’s Youth and Family Services Division. “And we are all striving toward the same goal: prevent as many evictions as possible.”
The community-based application model is handled by a network of more than 40 community-based organizations, including culturally-specific providers. The partners provide rent assistance, outreach, and also connect households with other services to help them remain housed and stable.
Since July 1, 2021, 433 households have received almost $3 million in rent assistance through the community-based application model. That pace is expected to pick up as community-based providers continue to add staff. Last year, those providers distributed $10 million to households and landlords.
As of Friday, Aug. 13, 576 households out of nearly 9,000 have either started or completed their application for help through the Allita portal. At least $4.1 million in total assistance has been committed. More than 1,000 applications are currently in the queue to be reviewed to be submitted for payment. The average request for rent assistance in Allita is $7,700, and roughly $6,000 is paid out per request.
Multnomah County has hired a team of 26 staff to help process Allita applications. Workers help tenants complete their application and reach out to the landlords to ensure they receive payments through the program.
However, software issues with the State’s portal, along with the time needed to recruit and then train workers, have slowed County staff’s ability to process applications through Allita, according to Samolinski. But the County is on pace to process about 1,100 applications per month as its expanded Allita processing team hits its stride. But with a significant backlog in applications, commissioners expressed concern over whether the State’s software would allow the County to meet renters’ needs in time.
“It’s great that we’ve been able to get to 576 applications but, like everyone else, I’m concerned about the delta between 500 and 9,000,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said.
“We need more help from the State,” Chair Kafoury said. “The State put in place this system that didn’t work. We don’t have the ability to do this on our own. We need their assistance.”
Legal teams and community based providers work to prevent evictions
As staff work to process applications as quickly as possible, a coalition of partners including 211info, Oregon Law Center, Bienestar de la Familia, Metropolitan Public Defender and other community-based providers are providing rapid-response eviction prevention assistance as well as legal support to people who have been served an eviction notice for nonpayment of rent.
People who receive notices can call 2-1-1, which will then connect them to staff at Bienestar who can quickly help them with assistance. To sustain that response, the County has added staff to both programs.
Staff are even going to the courthouse and also door to door to ensure people are aware of rent assistance and eviction prevention services.
“The goal is to make sure families are aware of the resources available to them,” said Nabil Zaghloul, the program manager for Bienestar de la Familia, a County program that has been central to rent assistance and outreach efforts. “We’re always looking and asking our partners: how can we do it better?”
As of Aug. 17, the Oregon Law Center has detected 202 nonpayment cases filed in court, and 211 has made 92 referrals to Bienestar for nonpayment eviction notices. Overall, those numbers are lower than housing experts expected they would be.
In July alone, there were 109 nonpayment court filings in Multnomah County. Twenty percent of those who have had a court hearing have defaulted, despite rent assistance being available. To Becky Straus, a staff attorney with the Oregon Law Center, that means households aren’t aware of available resources.
“They’re in court for nonpayment, there’s rent assistance available to them, and they are not showing up to court, and so they’re getting an automatic loss on an eviction that was preventable,” Straus said.
Thirty-five percent of the cases in July were dismissed, while 26 percent of the cases were set over. When cases are set over, that means tenants have given the court proof that they have applied for rent assistance, and the court has set aside their case for 90 days. Another 9 percent of cases received a “short” set over. That’s when a tenant has one to three more days to apply for rent assistance to become eligible for 90 days of protection.
Tenants encouraged to seek help immediately if unable to pay rent
With measures in place to prevent eligible tenants from being evicted, Multnomah County and its partners are focused on helping tenants apply for rent assistance immediately if they are unable to pay their rent.
“This is incredible work,” said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. “What resonates for me is the deep commitment in trying to get this really complicated system to work and getting residents and landlords the money that’s been allocated to them.”
Renters who have received an eviction notice for nonpayment of rent are urged to call 211 immediately. Tenants who are unable to pay their rent should apply for rent assistance as soon as possible.
Tenants with additional questions about how and when to submit evidence for an application should contact their rent assistance provider or Oregon Law Center, Community Alliance of Tenants, or Legal Aid Services of Oregon.