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Sen. Kayse Jama (D-Oregon), chair of the state's Senate Committee on Housing and Development, and Rep. Julie Fahey (D-Eugene), chair of the state’s House Committee on Housing.
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 16 December 2021

On Monday, state legislators began a rapid consideration of bills aimed at preventing a widespread eviction crisis for Oregonians awaiting emergency rental assistance, as well as for those who were still in need when applications closed Dec. 1.

“The crux of it is, the actual safe harbor for an individual tenant expires 60 days after they’ve given landlords documentation that they’ve applied,” Rep. Julie Fahey (D- Eugene) told The Skanner. “Our proposal was that safe harbor should last as long as that application is pending. It needs to be individualized to each tenant’s experience so that no tenant is evicted.”

Fahey, chair of the state’s house committee on housing, has been working with Sen. Kayse Jama (D-Portland), chair of the Senate Committee on Housing and Development, to protect what they report are more than 10,000 households at risk of being evicted due to this bureaucratic gap.

"These are Oregonian issues," Jama told The Skanner. "It's about our values."

To that end, Gov. Kate Brown convened a special legislative session Monday to consider a package of bills, including Senate Bill 891, which grants the safe harbor Fahey described: Any tenant who has applied for assistance before June 30, 2022 and provided documentation to their landlord cannot be evicted for nonpayment while that application is being processed.

The Senate passed SB 891 Monday, with Republican resistance from Sens. Dick Anderson (Lincoln City), Lynn Findley (Vale), Fred Girod (Stayton), Dallas Heard (Roseburg), Dennis Linthicum (Klamath Falls) and Chuck Thomsen (Hood River). It is now working its way through the House.

To address the ongoing need for assistance that far outpaces the federal government’s $289 million in rental relief, the state legislature passed SB 5561, which asks for $100 million to revive the Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program, and another $100 million from the general fund to be allocated to the Housing and Community Services Department for localized emergency rent assistance and eviction prevention services. In addition, the bill calls for $5 million to fund application processing efforts, and $10 million for a grant to Home Forward, which would reimburse some landlords whose tenants were unable to secure emergency assistance.

The Senate passed the bill with minor Republican opposition, from Sens. Dennis Linthicum (Klamath Falls) and Chuck Thomsen (Hood River). The bill made it through the House with nay votes from reps. Daniel Bonham (R-The Dalles), Werner Reschke (R-Klamath Falls), and Duane Stark (R-Grants Pass).

New, Shaky Ground

In June, as a statewide moratorium on evictions was ending, Oregon lawmakers approved the 60-day “safe harbor.” With average processing times reportedly as high as 130 days in one county, such protections fell far short of protecting Oregon renters whose income has been impacted by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

“There’s two elements to what we’re trying to do in the special session,” Fahey told The Skanner. “One is changing the safe harbor protections so that tenants are protected from eviction until the check is cut. That is the policy piece of what we’d like to do. The other piece relates to funding.”

Jama points out that like the pandemic itself, the oncoming eviction crisis is disproportionately impacting BIPOC Oregonians.

A collaborative study by the Community Alliance of Tenants and Portland State University conducted last year showed that 56% of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) tenants owed some amount of back rent, compared to 35% of the general population of renters in Oregon. That number somewhat obscured the actual rental crisis in the state, however: The same study showed that at least 53% of surveyed tenants had cut back on food, medications or other essentials to meet rent.

“It’s much more expensive, having to deal with the triaging and all the consequences around eviction, for Oregonians who might be dealing with homelessness,” Jama said. “It’s a steeper price later on.”

A study by Portland State's Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative released in June bears that out, finding up to 125,400 households could be at risk of eviction. Although this top-end estimate is considerably higher than numbers provided by the state, it takes into account households that have slight to no confidence in their ability to pay upcoming rent. Using the University of Arizona College of Law's Cost of Eviction Calculator, researchers warned such evictions could cost the state up to $4.7 billion in shelter needs, inpatient medical care, emergency room expenses, foster care and child delinquency. It does not account for additional costs like increased public assistance needs, interruptions to education, or long-term impacts to health, education and income.

“We know that evictions have devastating consequences for individuals and families,” Fahey said.

“Even a short period of housing instability or houselessness can have generational consequences. It’s far more difficult and expensive to reach people who have lost stable housing than it is to prevent an eviction.”

It is an unprecedented need for rental assistance that is resulting in unprecedented support programs – and, Fahey and Jama hope, providing new approaches that will hopefully outlast the pandemic.

“I have a really close friend who’s an educator in a ‘rental school district,’” Fahey told The Skanner, describing a population of children who are more vulnerable to the rental market and therefore, more likely to move during the academic year. “In the context of talking about how challenging her job has been, she said one thing that’s been better is her school typically sees a churn of about a third of students. This year they have not seen that. That to me said that the policies we have put in place during the pandemic have worked to keep people housed.”

To apply for emergency rent assistance, visit oregon.gov/ohcs/housing-assistance/Pages/emergency-rental-assistance. For more information about rental assistance, visit oregoncat.org or homeforward.org.

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