When state lawmakers gather in Salem next week for a special session, they’ll be trying to unpack how short-term funding from the federal government can best be used to address Oregon’s long-standing affordable housing issues.
Renters and housing advocates want a permanent continuation of rental assistance programs. Landlords are ready for things to return to their pre-pandemic norm. And the state hasn’t made any firm commitments... yet.
Underlying it all is what renters’ advocates say has been a long-simmering eviction crisis, alongside the state’s slow-as-molasses approach to sending out relief checks from its federally-backed emergency rental assistance program.
As of now, all of the $289 million from Oregon’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (OERAP) is spoken for, and the program went on pause starting December 1 to clear its backlog of applications and await further funding from the federal government. But that source of money isn’t intended to last forever.
“The federal program will sunset at some point,” said Oregon Housing and Community Services Executive Director Margaret Salazar in a press conference on December 1.
That brings us to the biggest question at hand: What happens when the federal funding dries up?
“Unfortunately we will go back to the system we had previously, which already is not equipped to handle families in crisis,” says Kim McCarty, executive director of the Community Alliance of Tenants.
Housing advocates, property owners, and OHCS representatives alike point out that Oregon was facing a shortage of safe and affordable housing units, a lack of shelter beds, and limited accessible legal services for those facing eviction even before the pandemic hit.
Sen. Kayse Jama (D-Portland) and Rep. Julie Fahey (D-Eugene) have crafted a proposal for this special session which would set aside $100 million in federal money for county-level social service organizations to transition from pandemic-related emergency assistance to more long-term eviction prevention services.
But with the start of the special session just days away, none of the major stakeholders are in agreement about what those long-term services might be.
“I would like people to have faster access to assistance. The sooner we stabilize a household, the less public cost, the more successful they’ll be,” says McCarty, who adds that it has been particularly beneficial for renters to have a single, centralized place to access information and help with eviction proceedings.
Still, it‘s unclear how the state might sustain such a program after this last round of federal funding is depleted. Landlords have suggested an end to the emergency rental program and a more market-based approach to housing stabilization, by making it easier and more profitable to build new housing
“We’re not in the same crisis that initiated this emergency rental assistance program. Unemployment and the economy aren’t the same issues they were a year ago. Government pre-pandemic was never in the business of providing emergency rental assistance for hundreds of thousands of people,” says Ron Garcia, executive director of the Rental Housing Alliance Oregon, which represents property owners.
But bolstered by the successes of previous rounds of rental assistance, McCarty feels confident that a long-term continuation of the program is feasible – as long as policymakers commit to prioritizing accessible housing.
“I hope that we can learn from this public health crisis that there is enough prosperity in the United States to stabilize our communities,” says McCarty. “We learned that when we made investments in emergency rental assistance that our housing market did not fall apart.”
Whether or not the program will be extended beyond 2022, there’s a lot of buzz about shoring up supportive services to keep Oregonians in their houses.
Via email, an OHCS spokesperson highlighted the need for “mediation between landlords and tenants, fair housing counseling, housing navigators or promoters that help households access programs or find housing, case management related to housing stability, and legal services for low-income tenants facing court evictions.”
For example, neighboring Washington has enacted a landmark “right to counsel” law, ensuring legal representation for low-income renters in eviction proceedings, Oregon has no such guarantees, leaving many without legal recourse when faced with eviction.
“This is a really opportune time for us in Oregon to think about right to counsel,” says McCarty. “Housing is a contract and there’s a power imbalance when one end of the contract doesn’t have a right to legal counsel.”
Meanwhile, property owners, especially smaller landlords without in-house lawyers, are also interested in state-guaranteed access to legal help.
"What I would like to see is housing providers to have access to the same kind of advisement that tenants do in mediation,” says Garcia.
Arguably the most long-term investments to be made are in housing supply. While the state channeled $591.8 million into affordable housing last legislative session, some property owners are looking for more ways to incentivize the creation of more housing.
“We need more units—supply and demand. If property owners and builders had more tax credits to build more units and provide more units, those could help eventually change the housing climate,” says Garcia.
Holistic, long-term eviction prevention services are uncharted waters, in Oregon and beyond. With Massachusetts investing federal dollars into robust tenant-landlord mediation systems and Louisville, Kentucky taking a multifaceted approach combining legal rights to counsel, racially equitable outreach, and rapid rehousing programs, Oregon too could be poised to reshape the eviction process.
Things could easily go off the rails during Monday's special session if the Republican caucus decides not to show up, denying a quorum. But assuming that doesn't happen, Oregon lawmakers will also vote on extending eviction protections for renters still waiting on checks, adding an additional $90 million in federal money to OERAP’s fund, and allocating $5 million to OHCS for administrative costs.