Oregon Legislature commits money to eviction protection, drought relief in one-day session

Co-chairs Representative Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, and Senator Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, listen during the joint committee work session on SB 891of the second special session at the Oregon State Capitol Building in Salem on Monday.

Co-chairs Representative Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, and Senator Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, listen during the joint committee work session on SB 891of the second special session at the Oregon State Capitol Building in Salem on Monday.

The Oregon Legislature voted to extend the state’s eviction “safe harbor” for those who have applied for rental assistance and also allotted $215 million in state and federal dollars toward supporting landlords and tenants during a one-day special legislative session Monday.

The legislation passed as an estimated 8,000 Oregonians are at risk of eviction for non-payment of rent due to the COVID-19 pandemic and as the state’s housing agency has been unable to process their applications within the previous 60-day window.

If Gov. Kate Brown signs the bills — as she is expected to do later this week — tenants won’t be evicted for non-payment for as long as their rental assistance applications are pending, until June 30, 2022.

If the state reopens the rental assistance application portal, as Oregon Housing and Community Services has said they will do in January, those applicants will be protected through Sept. 30, 2022.

“I’d like to thank lawmakers from both sides of the aisle for taking immediate, bipartisan action to address this critical set of issues impacting Oregonians,” Brown said in a statement. “I remain focused on working with agency directors to ensure relief reaches Oregonians as quickly as possible.”

The Legislature also passed a $100 million drought relief bill, which included:

  • $40 million for an agricultural disaster relief forgivable loan program
  • $12 million for domestic well assistance in the Klamath Basin,
  • $10 million for agricultural workers who missed work due to unsafe working conditions stemming from extreme heat or smoke

“These investments are critically urgent because agriculture is a vital sector of our economy,” Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, said in a statement. “Last summer was brutal for their livelihoods. These crucial investments will help the producers bounce back and recoup some of the lost revenues they would have otherwise earned.”

Another bill sent $25 million toward quashing illegal cannabis grows, particularly in southern Oregon. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle called the proliferation of cannabis growing operations run by foreign cartels a humanitarian, environmental and public safety crisis.

“It is clear that law enforcement needs more help to stop these dangerous illegal operations,” Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said in a statement.

Other money distributed through Monday’s legislation included:

  • $19 million toward Oregon Health Plan dental funding.
  • $18 million toward supporting the resettlement of Afghan refugees in the state.
  • $14 million to support targeted affordable housing ($1 million each to 14 cities, including Salem).
  • $10 million in grants to outdoor recreation outfitter guides impacted by drought or the pandemic.
  • $5 million for cross-laminated timber modular housing demonstration projects.
  • $2 million to East Metro for gang-related outreach, prevention and intervention programs.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, called the bills “remarkable.”

“Oregonians can be proud of their legislators today,” he said. “Democrat and Republican. We came together to send relief, hope, to Oregonians in crisis.”

All four bills considered Monday passed with bipartisan support.

Criticism of some measures — primarily from Republicans — centered around concerns that the money being distributed was not dealing with root causes, at best merely papering over long-standing problems or simply wasting taxpayer dollars.

Critics said the $25 million for law enforcement to break up illegal cannabis grows from cartels doesn’t make much progress toward filling the hole left by an under-funded Oregon State Police department.

Nor does the millions put toward rental assistance address the underlying issues of housing availability or accountability within OHCS.

“I will not vote to extend a program that has let down so many people without a change in leadership at OHCS, a clear plan for addressing these failures immediately and a commitment from this Legislature to exercise proper oversight,” Rep. Christine Drazan, R-Canby, said while calling on Brown to remove the current executive director of OHCS.

Brown called lawmakers to the Oregon Capitol for this special legislative session primarily to address the state’s lagging rental assistance program, which is out of money and has left people out of time.

The state’s slow processing of applications has resulted in thousands of renters being evicted while waiting for the money they and their landlords are due. The 60-day “safe harbor” period became law in June and was quickly proven to be inadequate. Multnomah and Washington counties have a 90-day period.

According to Oregon Housing and Community Service, the agency has paid out 24,705 of the 58,849 applications for federal assistance as of Dec. 8.

The state stopped taking applications Dec. 1 after allocating all $289 million in federal dollars it had been given. Officials said the application portal would be closed for at least six weeks.

Much of the delay on the part of the state in processing applications was pinned on the computer system it has been using since starting the program in May.

OHCS executive director Margaret Salazar said Monday the state considered replacing that system after recognizing its initial delays, but declined after realizing a change would set the agency back further.

Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, pointed to the state’s repeated failures in adopting technology — including Cover Oregon and the employment department — has hurt citizens.

“It’s just so disappointing that we have to keep seeing these failures and then create all these false promises,” she said. “We just keep doing it. I think it’s the definition of insanity.”

Channeling the frustrations voiced by those who applied for rental assistance, lawmakers pushed for accountability from Oregon Housing and Community Services.

Several lawmakers called for a comprehensive audit of the systems and how they failed Oregonians. Some wanted that audit completed for the 2022 legislative session, which begins Feb. 1.

Salazar warned them that any review of the department’s handling of the application process could further slow distribution of the $215 million the legislature added into the program with Monday’s vote.

“We think they would be most appropriate after September 2022 when we see a lot of the programming that you all are considering come to a close,” Salazar said.

The state has not given a date on when it will resume taking applications for rental assistance, but Salazar told lawmakers Monday the state is working on making the language in the application process more clear for those applying.

The state estimates it will distribute the original $289 million in rental assistance by March 2022 and the $100 million the Legislature approved Monday by June.

“I don’t believe the software will be a hindrance in delivering these new funds,” Salazar told lawmakers.

Posted at Yahoo by Connor Radnovich and Bill Poehler, Statesman Journal on 12-13-21

Date: 2021-12-14 08:29

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