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Gov. Brown weighs special session on tenant protections, rental aid

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Gov. Kate Brown said Friday, Nov. 12 that she is considering calling a special session of the Oregon Legislature to extend legal protections for tenants at risk of eviction while they wait for emergency rental assistance.

Brown also said lawmakers may be asked to consider approving additional state aid if more federal money does not come through.

"But it will be impossible to serve every Oregon family that is struggling with rent with state resources alone," Brown said in her statement. "Those conversations will continue, with the goal of bringing forward a proposal for the Legislature to consider in a special session in the upcoming weeks."

Brown didn't specify when she might call lawmakers back to Salem.

The Legislature met for a special session on legislative and congressional redistricting Sept. 20-27. The 35-day session in 2022 is scheduled to start Feb. 1; lawmakers will conduct committee meetings Jan. 11-13.

Brown issued her statement after the Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services announced that pending applications are likely to claim the rest of Oregon's federal money for emergency rental assistance — and that new applications would be put on hold for at least six weeks, starting just before midnight on Wednesday, Dec. 1.

Department Director Margaret Salazar said her agency was on the verge of committing all of the $289 million it has received from the U.S. Treasury, on top of the $200 million that the Legislature approved in state funds back on Dec. 21. All of the state money was spent by the end of June.

"We want to make sure we are keeping our commitments to every Oregon renter who has applied for assistance to date," Salazar told reporters during a conference call. "We do not yet know whether we will receive additional dollars from the Treasury."

Oregon was among the states that committed at least 65% of their first-round allocations of federal rental assistance by the initial deadline of Sept. 30. The Treasury will reallocate unused money, which Salazar said the agency should know in the next few weeks.

Brown said she has asked Deputy Secretary Wally Adeyemo, the No. 2 official at the Treasury, for direct help. "It is not likely, however, that the U.S. Treasury will be able to deploy additional resources for rental assistance immediately," she said.

Portland and Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties also received money from the Treasury for their own emergency rental assistance payments.

As of Nov. 10, according to the agency's dashboard, it has paid or obligated rental assistance for 23,409 households. The agency has received more than 48,000 applications, 20,000 of which are still under review; both figures exclude 12,000 applications deemed incomplete because tenants or landlords have not supplied adequate information.

An estimated 13,000 households have exceeded the grace periods from evictions allowed for tenants who show proof they have applied for rental assistance. State law passed during the last days of the 2021 session set a deadline of 60 days; actions by commissioners in Multnomah and Washington counties, plus Beaverton, set 90 days. (The Washington County action applies only to areas outside cities, although Beaverton acted on its own.)

"There must be an immediate action to ensure no one who has applied for help gets evicted while their applications are being processed," Sybil Hebb, an attorney for the Oregon Law Center, said in a statement released by Stable Homes for Oregon Families.

"Additionally, rent assistance must remain available without disruption for new applications. This winter too many Oregon renters are living in uncertainty and fear of losing their homes. By coming together in swift action, state lawmakers can keep people safe and stable in their homes, keep children in school, and stop unnecessary evictions."

More than 60 organizations have joined a call by Stable Homes for Oregon Families for a special session.

Salazar said her agency has already paid out a total of $402.5 million in rental assistance this year, more than in all of the past decade. She said the agency, helped by community action agencies and an outside contractor, will continue to process applications.

"These funds have helped stave off thousands of evictions during this public health crisis," she said. "But we continue to be concerned about the many renters who are at risk of experiencing the trauma of eviction. This weighs on us heavily every single day.

"The pandemic has highlighted longstanding housing issues in our state. It has become increasingly clear there is a much greater need than available federal funds for this particular program."

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