County, partners help more than 10,460 households with rent; $57 million to landlords since July 1, 2021

March 9, 2022

The Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, March 8, received an update on eviction prevention and COVID-19 rent assistance, following an announcement that the Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program will stop accepting new applications on March 14. 

Since July 1, 2021, the County and its partners have distributed a total of $57.3 million, serving 10,462 households.

Just under half of those funds came through the State’s online portal, with the rest shared through Federal allocations directly to Multnomah County and the City of Portland. These funds are allocated to an expanded network of community-based service providers and a rapid-response eviction prevention program specifically created by the Department of County Human Services. Housing officials regularly delivered progress reports to the Board along the way.

“It’s been really helpful to have the ongoing conversations from you all and the reports about what you’re doing, to really see the compounded effort,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “It’s been a lot of work for you all, but when you think of people, kids and families have been able to stay at home.”

Oregon first started distributing its share of federal rent assistance in May 2021 in response to COVID-19. Those state-level funds joined federal rent assistance that had been directly allocated to the County and the City of Portland. After a pause on Dec. 1, 2021, the state reopened its application portal on Jan. 26, 2022, with new resources from the Oregon State Legislature. 

The latest closure of the state’s application portal comes just after last month’s 2022 Legislative Session, where legislators passed a $400 million housing and homelessness funding package. That legislation is awaiting Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s signature. 

Local efforts key to preventing evictions 

As housing and human services officials look to the next phase of their rent assistance and eviction prevention strategy, local data shows their community-based efforts to keep people housed have been particularly successful. 

In January, only 12% of eviction cases in Multnomah County resulted in default - meaning people just didn’t show up for their eviction court case – the lowest number recorded since the County created its eviction prevention program. Peggy Samolinski, director of the County’s Youth and Family Services Division, attributes that to the County’s outreach efforts.

Caseworkers at Bienestar de la Familia have gone door to door, offering resources and assistance to households facing eviction. A special team of caseworkers has even intercepted people at the courthouse before their eviction hearings, to help them avoid losing their homes. The County also partnered with 211info and legal advocacy organizations to share information and to give people another way to apply for rapid-response assistance.

“That’s a really promising number,” Samolinski said of the default rate. “Overall, this data does underscore that our eviction prevention efforts are critical to preventing folks from losing their housing and the need is continuing to be high and increasing over time.”

Weekly referrals from 211 for people seeking rapid rent assistance due to an eviction notice for non-payment of rent, processed by Bienestar de la Familia, reached an all-time high in February. Between July 1 and Feb. 25, Bienestar made home visits to 897 residences at risk of eviction. At least 1,663 households have received rent assistance from Bienestar, through door-to-door and courthouse engagement, for a total amount of nearly $6 million. 

“These households have a roof over their head because of this work,” said Stephanie Simmons, the County’s Housing Stability Team Manager.

An additional 2,912 households received rent assistance through a County team tasked with processing applications that come through Oregon’s rent assistance portal. From July 1 to Feb. 18, those households received a total of nearly $25 million in rent assistance and nearly $1.2 million in utility assistance. 

Meanwhile, the County’s expanded network of community-based providers  – a coalition of more than 40 nonprofits, funded in partnership with the City of Portland  – committed more than $32 million to 7,550 households in roughly the same timeframe. Of those households, 84.6% identify as Black, Indigenous, or as People of Color. Ninety-three percent had an income of 50% Area Median Income or less.

“We are working really hard and diligently through our system design and implementation to ensure these funds are going to households who we know are most impacted by the pandemic and systems of oppression in our community,” said Yesenia Delgado of the Joint Office of Homeless Services. 

Unequal recovery highlights need for ongoing assistance 

The recent Omicron surge stalled the region’s economic recovery, and several industries remain short of pre-pandemic employment. Those industries, such as leisure and hospitality, tend to have a higher share of lower-income workers. In Multnomah County, the leisure and hospitality sector is 12,000 workers short of pre-COVID levels, representing 21% of the industry.

“The numbers are stark,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said. “What looks like a recovery for some of us is not a recovery.”

Combined with an inequitable economic recovery, Portland has experienced a 30% year-over-year increase in listed rents – among the highest in the country, said Jeff Renfro, the County’s economist. The issue is compounded by a limited housing supply and a decrease in vacancy rates. All of those forces are making it more expensive to live here. 

“I think that the story going forward is going to be a combination of a slow recovery in some parts of the economy, and then rents are going to really start taking off here, and they already have,” said Jeff Renfro, the County’s economist. “All signs point to over the next year or two we’re going to continue to see increases in rents.”

Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said “systemic structures” like higher interest rates and a slowdown in construction are adding to Multnomah County’s housing challenges.

All of those factors, she said, “are just making it almost impossible for people who are struggling to pay the rent, and have been struggling to pay rent, to look forward into the future and see any light at the end of the tunnel.” 

Experts caution the closure of the state’s application portal does not signal the end of need in the community. Nor does it mean the end of help to meet that need. Because of the locally funded programs, the system is currently distributing $1.4 million per week in rent assistance, which is expected to last through April or early May. 

After the remaining federal rent assistance is fully spent, the County and its partners will draw from an additional pool of funding allocated by the Legislature in December. “The need for ongoing rent assistance continues to remain high and very much needed,” Delgado said.

“It’s less expensive, less traumatic to keep people housed than to let them lose their housing,” Commissioner Lori Stegmann said. “We need more help, more money, more help preventing people from becoming evicted.”