September 27, 2021

Multnomah County and its partners have committed more than $61 million to keep renters in their homes since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to a new progress report presented to the Board of County Commissioners Thursday, Sept. 23

The presentation from County and community leaders was the fifth progress report to the board since the County began a massive push in coordination with numerous community partners to protect thousands of renters from being evicted due to non-payment of rent.

“It’s been almost three months since the statewide residential eviction moratorium ended and, in that time, thousands of renters in Multnomah County have applied and continue to apply for the resources they need to avoid eviction,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “This board is now familiar with the incredible work of County staff and our partners, as well as the rapid expansion of a system that had historically distributed an average of $10 million a year but is now charged with distributing ten times that much.”

Providing relief before renters’ 90-day eviction protections expire

The update comes as tenants who applied for rent assistance in July approach the end of their 90-day eviction protections. Oregon Senate Bill 278 ensures 60 days of protection from nonpayment eviction to renters who show proof of a completed rent assistance application to their landlords.  Multnomah County extended that safe harbor provision an extra 30 days for County residents. The County and a network of community partners have been working to ensure that no one’s eviction protections expire due to non-payment of rent..

Peggy Samolinski, who directs the County’s Youth and Family Services Division, said the County is prioritizing households who applied for rent assistance in July, whose protections are close to expiring. 

“We know their protections would be ending, so we have prioritized those applications in the Allita system,” Samolinski said, adding that there is a back-up plan in case their rent assistance is delayed. “We have a plan to reach out to those landlords directly ourselves, and we’re working with our partners at the Oregon Law Center to reach those landlords to just reassure them that the check is on the way.”

The County began a public service announcement campaign in late September raising awareness about rent assistance and eviction prevention resources.

The County has a three-pronged approach to protect tenants: a community-based application model composed of local funds; a centralized online portal sponsored by the state of Oregon, known as Allita; and a rapid-response eviction protection program. 

“We have really learned a lot over the last year and a half, and we are continuously implementing those learnings into these three different systems to ensure that we keep as many people housed and support families in the way that they need to,” said Yesenia Delgado, a family system program specialist for the Joint Office of Homeless Services.

Of the money distributed to tenants so far, $5.6 million is through the community-based application model, which distributes funds from the City of Portland, Multnomah County. Since the pandemic began, 30 staff have been hired to assist with distributing rent assistance. And since July 1, the program has served 1,400 households with more than $5.6 million in rent assistance committed. 

An additional $44 million has been allocated to the County by Oregon Housing and Community Services,  through Allita, the state’s online portal. That funding comes from emergency rental assistance dollars allocated to the state by the federal government. As of Friday, Sept. 17, more than 2,200 households have received rent assistance totaling $9.6 million. 

Since the beginning of the Allita rollout, staff charged with distributing rent assistance, as well as tenant rights advocates, have expressed concern about software glitches and administrative burdens, both of which have slowed the distribution of funds to renters.  Each application includes 22 stages — each requiring staff involvement — before assistance is dispersed. There are currently more than 12,000 applications totaling more than $76 million in the Multnomah County queue. That currently exceeds the $44 million allocated to the County.

“We are spending an awful lot of resources in terms of human resource, emotional resource, financial resource to backstop a system that does not seem set up to serve the people that we intended to serve,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said. “It’s hard to imagine coming up with a system that’s more difficult to do the job that we need it to do. So all of that is to say I sincerely appreciate the work that’s going into figuring out how to do this.”

Non-payment eviction cases on the rise, and legal experts are here to help

The County’s third strategy — the eviction protection program — has two major components: outreach to renters facing eviction, and legal support. The program is staffed by County-funded  staff who conduct outreach  visits to court for  renters who have an eviction hearing. To date, the program has supported more than 290 households to avoid eviction. The legal component provides legal advice and counsel to tenants, and positive outcomes include winning at trial, maintaining clients’ housing, securing extra time for rent assistance payments to process, and getting cases dismissed. 

Eviction protection services staffed by Bienestar de la Familia, Oregon Law Center, Metropolitan Public Defender and 211info have connected renters with more than $450,000 in rent assistance payments. 

But legal experts like Becky Straus, a staff attorney at the Oregon Law Center, say they’re seeing more instances of preventable evictions. And as more people become at risk of having their SB 278 safe harbor protections expire, that’s expected to get worse. Cite the MC ordinance too - as that gives 30 extra days.

There were 169 non-payment cases in August, with 34 percent of those resulting in negative — but preventable — outcome for the tenant, Straus said. In many instances, those tenants simply didn’t show up to court and lost their case. Some tenants are agreeing to pay rent on a faster timeline than what’s offered to them. In some instances, the landlord has won outright, resulting in the eviction of their tenants.

“We have a very detailed and, frankly, unprecedented look at what’s happening in eviction court. Right now the picture is not particularly encouraging,” Straus said. “We’re concerned about 34 percent of those cases that are non-payment cases that are resulting in some sort of preventable and unfavorable outcome for the tenant.” 

Weekly referrals to 211 for non-payment eviction notices are also on the rise. With the increase in callers, 211 has added more staff to provide resources to households. Callers who have received an eviction notice are immediately connected to the County program, where staff help  people apply for rental assistance. 

“We are feeling very confident that all the households that are reaching out through 211 and are being identified through the court, that we will get their rent assistance paid, and be able to prevent that eviction,” said Delgado. 

County begins public awareness campaign for renters

On Tuesday, Sept. 21, the County began a multi-day text message campaign directed at more than 308,000 cell phone users in Multnomah County. The alert, written in English and Spanish, informs residents about financial and legal resources available to them if they have struggled, or are struggling, to pay rent. The message also encourages residents to call 211 if they have received a notice of eviction for non-payment of rent. 

The text messaging campaign was just one example of the many ways the County is engaging residents to prevent evictions and connect them to assistance. Over recent months, staff have gone door-to-door and met people at the Central Courthouse on a daily basis to intervene with the eviction process. 

Now the County is shifting toward more traditional public service announcement-style campaigns aimed at informing as many residents as possible about the eviction prevention resources available. 

“We have to account for the inherent inequity of a centralized system with direct and intentional outreach through multiple channels to reach those communities by using all means of communication open to us,” said Liam Frost, a senior policy advisor to Chair Kafoury. “It’s not a bad thing if people get the message twice, three times, four times, five times. That’s kind of the point here — to try and reach as many people as many times as possible.”

In October, every residential unit in Multnomah County will also receive a postcard mailer with eviction prevention information in six different languages. The County is also beginning a 30-day social media advertising push, as well as radio and television ads. 

The campaign prioritizes Black, Indigenous and other renters of color by investing in culturally specific media, including Univision, The Skanner, The Portland Observer, El Latino De Hoy, Slavic Family Media, The Asian Reporter and more. 

Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson expressed her appreciation for all the outreach that’s happening. 

“I think that’s what we all can continue to do, is just try to make people aware that resources are there and that they’re not in this alone and that we’re trying to help them,” she said. 

“I’ve never seen the County do anything as robust as that,” added Commissioner Lori Stegmann. 

County continues to press state to fill unmet need

Looking forward, the County will continue to prioritize applications in the Allita system with the most urgent needs. On a daily basis, staff are tracking which households are closest to having their 90-day protections expire. The County is also expediting Allita applications for those who have been served an eviction notice for non-payment of rent.

With the amount of rent assistance requested exceeding the funding that’s available, Commissioner Sharon Meieran expressed concerns about whether the County alone can meet the need of renters. 

“We know we won’t have enough,” Meieran said. “So how are we moving toward getting enough money to meet the need?”

To that end, Chair Kafoury said that it’s up to the state to assure that money is available for renters as long as it keeps the Allita application open for renters. The County is also pressing the federal government for an expansion of funding for emergency rent assistance. 

“It is unfortunate the amount of barriers other layers of government have placed in such a time where we should be having even less barriers to get the rent assistance dollars out,” Chair Kafoury said.