Thousands of Oregon tenants who were at risk of receiving eviction notices for Christmas are safe after the Oregon Legislature voted on Monday to extend a period of protection and allocate an additional $ 215 million to shut down evictions.
In addition to providing more money, the chairmen of the House and Senate housing committees on Monday sent Secretary of State Shemia Fagan a letter asking her office’s audit division to investigate the agency. state responsible for managing the state rent assistance program.
Lawmakers in the spring surmised that a 60-day stay of the eviction process would give tenants and their landlords enough time to receive the help they requested.
Instead, lawmakers returned to Salem on Monday with about 8,000 Oregon households at risk of eviction because the state has yet to process their requests. Lawmakers provided a bipartisan bailout, adding more money to the state’s rent assistance fund and again banning evictions for those awaiting that state aid.
“We are here in special session today because we believe no one should lose their home while they wait for rent assistance, and help is on the way,” said State Representative Julie Fahey. , D-Eugene and the President. of the House Housing Committee.
In Monday’s special session, the legislature also approved approximately $ 200 million in additional funding for drought relief, refugee resettlement and money to help sheriffs in southern Oregon to fight against illegal marijuana farms owned by cartels.
For tenants at risk of eviction, the crux of lawmakers’ action on Monday was to extend the protection period from 60 days – 90 in Multnomah County and parts of Washington County – to the time needed to process claims. requests for assistance from the State. Tenants could ask for help until June 30, but all eviction protections would end on September 30.
The legislature approved $ 215 million to prevent evictions, including $ 100 million in direct assistance to landlords and tenants and $ 100 million for local eviction prevention programs. This re-ignites a transition to managing housing instability as an ongoing problem, rather than a short-term emergency caused by COVID.
Lawmakers also awarded $ 5 million to the Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services, the agency that handles eviction relief, to bolster staff and get money faster. And they added $ 10 million to a fund to reimburse landlords for lost rent while their tenants are protected from eviction.
Applications for the latest wave of relief closed on December 1. Margaret Salazar, director of the Housing and Community Services Department, said she plans to reopen applications, with slight adjustments to make things easier, in about a month.
State Senator Tim Knopp, R-Bend and the Senate Minority Leader were one of the few Republicans to vote for the Safe Harbor Bill. He said he shared his colleagues’ concern that the lack of housing supply is Oregon’s primary problem. But Knopp said the back-up law was a way to reimburse landlords and then revert by June 30 to a status quo in which tenants must pay rent or risk eviction.
âWe have a problem,â Knopp said. âWe have the possibility of people being deported. We have owners who need to be healed.
As the legislature prepared to give more money to the Department of Housing and Community Services, some lawmakers questioned whether the department was fit to manage the rental program. Senator Lynn Findley, R-Vale, said he was surprised to hear Salazar bragging about the program’s success on Saturday at a legislative hearing.
âI heard he called a lot of things but never heard him say he was successful until Saturday,â he said.
The program was one of the fastest in the country to disburse federal rent assistance funds. Oregon is expected to receive even more federal money next spring, after the US Treasury clawed funds from states that had not spent their share and reallocated the money to states that spent more.
But despite the department’s overall speed at allocating money, thousands of Oregonians in need of help wait months to receive it. At least 8,000 households that applied for rental assistance months ago are at risk of eviction because their applications were not processed before their eviction protection expires.
Salazar told lawmakers his agency was working to get money out faster.
âWe focused on processing laser claims,â she said. âWe have doubled the amount of dollars spent since we appeared before a legislative committee two months ago. “
Republican lawmakers and Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, wondered why Salazar still has his job. Representative Suzanne Weber, R-Tillamook, said she could have been convinced to vote for relief if Gov. Kate Brown had sacked Salazar. She compared the circumstances to Brown’s decision to fire the head of the Oregon employment department in May 2020 after that department failed at the start of the pandemic to secure dozens of unemployment checks. thousands of Oregonians who have lost their jobs.
Instead, Weber said, Brown reminded lawmakers on Monday to throw money at an issue his administration started. Lawmakers will celebrate their “historic investment” in rent assistance as people continue to struggle, she said.
âIt’s like this body has no self-awareness or any shame,â Weber said.
Rep. Mark Meek, D-Gladstone, said the department’s focus on accountability would not help Oregonians who may be deported.
âThese families don’t care if someone’s head rolls,â he said. âThey will always be homeless. “
The two chief architects of the rent bailout wrote Secretary of State Shemia Fagan on Monday about the state agency. Fahey and Senator Kayse Jama, D-Portland, wrote that they were deeply troubled by the department’s handling of the rent assistance program, including technical difficulties with software and communication issues.
âFor thousands of Oregonians across the state, they’ve been given rather delay after delay,â they wrote. “Whatever the reason, this is unacceptable to the thousands of people who fear losing their homes despite a request for state aid.”
They requested a formal audit the following year. Other lawmakers pushed for the audit to be part of the legislation approved on Monday, but Fahey said she and Jama were focusing on immediate assistance.
Fagan spokeswoman Carla Axtman said the office will assess Fahey and Jama’s claim as well as other audits under consideration. The office will publish its state audit plan in 2022 on February 1.
Less controversial were two issues Republicans pushed to include in the cost of attending the special session.
The legislature created a grant-loan program for drought-affected farmers and ranchers with $ 40 million, as well as $ 20 million for grants to local law enforcement agencies tackling illegal farms. of marijuana in southern Oregon.
The drought loans are part of a larger drought relief package that will also provide $ 12 million for wells and irrigation in the Klamath basin, $ 10 million for farm workers who ran out of money. work because of heat or smoke, $ 9.7 million for drought relief for the Klamath tribes, $ 6 million for deeper wells and $ 5 million to eradicate crickets and grasshoppers .
Rural lawmakers have said drought relief is a start. Minority parliamentary leader Vikki Breese-Iverson, whose family owns a ranch in Prineville, said she sold several of her cows this year because she couldn’t get hay to feed them – and the drought and fire will remain problems affecting the people who grow Oregon’s food.
Grants to help police at illegal marijuana farms are also just the beginning, lawmakers have said. They expect to spend time in the next legislative session in February debating policy.
The Oregon Agricultural Bureau was quick to praise the back-up plan, which will involve loans to farmers and producers that will be canceled if they can show incomes compromised by recent Oregon disasters. .
âRelief for producers affected by this year’s natural disasters cannot come soon enough, and we look forward to working with the Oregon Department of Agriculture to put the direct assistance program in place,â he said. said Mary Anne Cooper of the Farm Bureau. “We especially want to thank the Governor for his diligent pursuit of this natural disaster plan, and our supporters in the Legislature for being such strong supporters of its passage.”
The session also saw another chapter in the year-long standoff between Senate Speaker Peter Courtney, D-Salem, and Senator Dallas Heard, the Republican from Roseburg who also chairs the Oregon Republican Party. Heard, a vocal opponent of Oregon’s mask mandates, made headlines last December when he dramatically ripped his mask off on Senate floor.
On Monday, he didn’t bring a mask with him at all. Heard has remained outside the Senate Chamber, entering to display a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down with every vote, until the Senate has finished its business and is preparing to adjourn. Then he walked in and sat down at his desk on the Senate floor.
In front of the full Senate, Courtney asked him to put on a mask or leave, and Heard refused. Courtney’s last move before adjourning the Senate was to send the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms to escort Heard, with orders not to return to Capitol Hill unless he wears a mask.