Housing leaders brief Board on COVID-19 rent assistance

October 27, 2021
Earlier this fall, Ms. Garcia, a Multnomah County resident, received an eviction notice for unpaid rent. She thought her landlord had already been paid for the months she wasn’t able to pay through the State’s Landlord Compensation Fund program.

Ms. Garcia had wanted to move out to another apartment that better met her needs, but because the landlord had filed an eviction case against her, she was having trouble securing a new apartment. That’s when Metropolitan Public Defender stepped in. The nonprofit’s legal staff obtained paperwork from Garcia and her case manager and appealed to the landlord’s attorney to drop the case and allow her to move out.

The landlord stopped pursuing extra payments from Garcia, dismissed her eviction case and allowed her to move out of the apartment with a clean record. She also was able to avoid the burden of excess rental debt. 

The legal assistance is one branch in a multi-pronged approach to keep Multnomah County families housed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Garcia’s success story is one example out of 176 referrals to Metropolitan Public Defender between July 1 and Oct. 22, 2021. Referrals come from 211info, the County and other community-based organizations. 

“Because of our close partnership with the case managers at the County agencies, we’re able to reach these settlements quickly and efficiently,” said Juhi Aggarwal, an attorney with Metropolitan Public Defender.

Aggarwal helped brief the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners Tuesday, Oct. 26, on the latest in the County’s efforts to deliver rent assistance, prevent evictions and offer legal services to people at risk of losing their homes due to nonpayment of rent. 

To reach every renter, the County began a public service awareness campaign in late September. So far, the County has sent text messages to 380,000 residents; mailed postcards to every residential mailbox in Multnomah County; initiated social media ads; and run radio, television and newspaper ads. 

The campaign prioritizes renters who identify as Black, Indigenous or People of Color (BIPOC). To that end, the County has translated communication materials into multiple languages and run advertisements on culturally specific media. The main “Find out how to apply for emergency rent assistance” webpage has been translated into 20 languages.

“I love the really in-depth communication and really broad [outreach],” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said. “I was also very happy to get my postcard in the mail.”

County case managers intercept eviction cases at courthouse 

Between July 1 and Oct. 15, 2021, 468 nonpayment cases were filed in Multnomah County court. Nearly two-thirds of those cases are dismissed or “set over” for 90 days. But in September, 27 percent “defaulted,” meaning the renter did not show up to their court case. 

Metropolitan Public Defender has helped more than 176 households with their rent nonpayment court cases.

The County’s Bienestar de la Familia program, based out of the Cully neighborhood, has assembled an outreach team focused on connecting with those who are most at risk of eviction. Programs like Bienestar are working daily to lower the default rate and prevent people from losing their court case.

Bienestar identifies cases appearing on the court docket. Case managers then try to reach them at their homes and offer assistance. The team has reached 137 tenants through door-to-door outreach. The majority of those tenants reside in East County. 

“For one particular client, it took [the team] five outreach/door knocking visits to reach a tenant who had a court appointment coming up. They were able to connect with this person just two days prior to the court date,” said Peggy Samolinski, who directs the County’s Youth & Family Services Division. “Through Bienestar, the tenant got their ‘safe harbor’ letter and rent assistance appointment, and therefore got a 90-day set over at court.”

The County’s public service awareness campaign encourages people who receive an eviction notice for nonpayment of rent to call 2-1-1 immediately. Those calls are immediately referred to Bienestar. Since July 1, Bienestar has received more than 434 referrals. Bienestar case workers engage with those households and help them complete applications for rent assistance if they’re eligible. 

Bienestar has initiated rent assistance applications for more than 526 households since July 1. Of those, at least 380 have received rent assistance so far. The others are having their applications processed. As of Oct. 15, Bienestar has facilitated the distribution of $855,000 in rent assistance. 

County and partners continue to distribute rent assistance as State agrees to process nearly 5,500 Allita applications

Apart from Bienestar, the County and a network of more than 40 community-based organizations continue to distribute rent assistance. Between July 1 and Oct. 13, 2021, the community-based system delivered $10.4 million to 2,638 households. Nine percent of those households had an eviction notice for unpaid rent, and eviction was prevented.

As of Oct. 21, 2021, there have been at least 14,087 applications through Allita, the State’s mandated online portal for rent assistance. Of those, 61 percent, 8,625, are completed applications. Of those, 4,486 are pending review. Another 1,010 are in process. And 2,186 have been paid out. Since July 1, the County has distributed nearly $19 million to keep renters housed. 

In Allita, ‘Incomplete’ means that an individual began an application but did not submit it. ‘Complete’ means the applicant completed the required information and successfully submitted it. A ‘paid out’ application has been submitted for funding.

211info also refers clients to the County’s 25-person Allita team. These are callers who are having trouble navigating or completing their applications for rent assistance through the State’s Allita portal. Since July 1, 211 has referred more than 598 callers to have their applications prioritized by County staff. 

“Every one of those numbers is an individual or family that was able to be made whole and stay in their home,” said Stephanie Simmons, who manages the Allita team. “And so each one of these dollars is representative of that.”

The total amount of requested rent assistance as of Oct. 21 was about $93 million, illustrating the extent of renters’ need in Multnomah County. To prioritize households with the most immediate need, the County has established a rolling process. The protocol uses the date of a renter’s application, along with their 90-day safe harbor status, to calculate when households are at risk of eviction.

“I imagine there are thousands to tens of thousands of people who are going to be facing potential eviction and potentially needing the rent,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran said. “How are we anticipating that? And will we be able to keep up?” 

“We’re in conversation with the State about that,” Samolinski responded. “About future resources, number one: to cover all of them that are in the system to begin with. And, number two: we are planning to do some additional hiring to shore up our team.” 

To help relieve some of the administrative burden on the County, the State has hired a third-party vendor for the tri-county area. So far, the vendor has agreed to handle at least 5,460 Allita applications. The County is in conversations with the State to process additional applications. 

County prioritizes households whose 90-day ‘Safe Harbor’ protections are expiring

The County identified 1,000 households that could have had their 90-day protections expire at the end of October. Every single one of those households have either had their applications paid out or processed. 

With 21 percent of those applications in process, Commissioner Lori Stegmann asked how confident the team feels about those being paid before the renters’ protections expire on Oct. 31. 

“I do feel confident that those will,” Simmons said, also noting that the figures relayed to the commissioners were based off of last week, and that the numbers have changed since then. “We are always working to get those paid.”

“What about August?” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal asked. “Isn’t it the people who have asked for August rent that are now at risk at the end of October?”

“What we’re doing is rolling projections,” Samolinski said. “We’re working on those applications right now. So we’ve got them broken out into two-week batches.”

With the possibility of a special legislative session, the County is looking at the Oregon State Legislature to take further action to protect renters. 

“We have been in conversations with the State, and we continue to be,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “I think there’s an effort at the State level to do more, knowing that the Allita complications are a result of the system that they’ve created.”