EXPLAINER: Backlog of aid slows Oregon eviction response

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire Saturday, after the Biden administration extended the original date by a month.

The moratorium, put in place by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes.

Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on their rent.

Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay.

They pointed out that tenants could access nearly $47 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.

Advocates for tenants said the distribution of the money had been slow and that more time was needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who were behind on their rents.

Even with the delay, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. as of July 5 said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.

The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.

Here’s the situation in Oregon:

WHAT’S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?

Oregon is one of several states that enacted a moratorium last year halting eviction proceedings for residents who have experienced financial hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the measure expired in June. As experts warned about a mass wave of evictions in the state, lawmakers and the governor passed and implemented additional safety nets for struggling tenants.

WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

Oregon set aside $200 million in federal emergency assistance to help tenants and landlords with current and outstanding rent. Based on data from Oregon Housing and Community Services, about 15,000 households have completed applications for rent assistance.

While Oregon has millions of dollars available to pay past-due rent, high demand created a backlog that officials said would not be cleared before the end of the state eviction moratorium.

As a result, in June Oregon lawmakers passed a “Safe Harbor” amendment on Senate Bill 278 to pause evictions.

Under the amendment, which received bipartisan support, tenants who are unable to pay July or August rent will not be evicted for 60 days if they provide proof to their landlord that they have applied for rental assistance. The bill was signed by Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, last month.

In addition, commissioners in Multnomah County — Oregon’s most populous county and home to Portland — voted earlier this month to extend the “Safe Harbor” amendment through the end of September.

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said the demand for rental assistance in the county that includes Portland is estimated “to be twice as high as all other Oregon counties combined.”

Officials say an additional month will give service providers more time to process and distribute funds to struggling tenants.

In addition, earlier this year Oregon lawmakers voted to extend the grace period for past-due rent during the moratorium, allowing tenants to have until Feb. 28, 2022, to pay back rent.

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

As the state braces for evictions, courts are also hastily preparing for an influx of evictions.

“We are closely monitoring the situation, but there continue to be a lot of unknowns and variables that will affect court workload and processes,” said Todd Sprague, a spokesperson for the Oregon Judicial Department.

The Chief Justice Order directs courts to schedule eviction proceedings “as soon as practicable,” but allows them to schedule first appearances within 14 days and any trial within 30 days, both of which are double the normal time.

In addition, retired judges are being assigned to courts that need short-term assistance. Some circuit courts are exploring mediation as well.

WHAT IS THE AFFORDABILITY IN THE STATE’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?

The cost of renting an apartment in Oregon’s most populous city, Portland, plummeted in 2020 amid the pandemic — at its peak dropping more than 7%.

However, this year the cost of renting has slowly started to increase again.

The Oregonian reported that, from March to April this year, Portland apartment rents increased by 1.8% from, with median rents sitting at $1,153 for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,344 for a two-bedroom apartment.

However, at the time the cost of renting an apartment in Portland was still down 4% as compared with last April.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

Oregon had a housing crisis before the pandemic, and since then it has only been exacerbated. It’s hard to say exactly how much homelessness will increase in Oregon.

However, one indication of the scope of the problem is census data in July showing 38% of Oregon tenants who responded to a survey — or more than 35,000 renters — said that it was “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that they would be evicted from their home.

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Sara Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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