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  • T.J. Putman

How Emergency Rental Assistance Impacts Families

The COVID-19 pandemic brought into sharp relief the instability of work, childcare, and housing for low-income families. We are all excited for the next steps in a post-pandemic world; however, it is crucial that we do not lose sight of the many destabilized, vulnerable families that remain at risk of losing housing or who are experiencing homelessness right now.

Each day when we take calls, we are reminded of the fact that 50% of homeless families in Oregon are unsheltered. The costs for families—both parents and children contend with deep trauma and the lack of a safe place to eat, sleep, or even store belongings and prized possessions—are incalculable.

Oregon legislators have scrambled to expand financial and housing assistance programs in response to the continued effects of the pandemic. Just last month Governor Brown signed Senate Bill 282 into law. SB 282 extends the grace period for repaying rental arrearages (unpaid rental debts) accumulated during the pandemic. This bill is an effort to stave off the wave of evictions that were forecasted as the moratorium expires at the end of this month. (SB 282 does not stop landlords from evicting tenants for missing rent payments going forward, nor does it forgive back rent.) More recently, on June 22nd the the State of Oregon passed SB 278 which gives tenants behind on rent an additional 60 days if they can show proof they applied for rental assistance.

Families at risk for eviction—either because they cannot afford monthly rent moving forward, or because they will not be able to keep up with their rent in addition to the unpaid rental debts accrued during the pandemic—can turn to The Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program (OERAP). OERAP has been allocated $204 million to assist families and individuals with late, current, and even future rent and utility payments to help prevent evictions and homelessness.

The application itself—at 27 pages long, involving extensive supplementary documentation, and requiring landlord participation—is a major obstacle for those who have multiple missed rent payments. Some renters may not be able to procure documentation that fulfills all the requirements of the OERAP application. Others may have an uncooperative landlord. Landlord participation in OERAP might not be attractive for those relying on rental properties for income; some would rather find new tenants with more traditional revenue than participate in a program that is potentially onerous and less profitable.

Families that currently lack shelter must endure unpredictable and protracted waits as they face uncertain futures. The wait to be assessed through Oregon’s Coordinated Entry System can take anywhere from a day to a week. After families take the assessment, the wait for openings in different community housing can take years. Salem’s Housing Authority estimates that there is an 18-25 month wait for housing with three bedrooms, and for units with four or more bedrooms the wait is 4-5 years. For Section 8 housing, there is a wait to simply be added to the waitlist, which is currently closed. Finally, many unsheltered families lack a reliable contact address; without which they can miss out on mailed notices for the potential housing opportunities they have been awaiting.

The outlook for families experiencing homelessness is bleak; however, Family Promise is doing our best to expand efforts to help those who need it. Recently, we added staff to assist with the Coordinated Entry System and have tripled the number of beds available for families in our shelter program. Additionally, we are expecting to double the number of families we can take out of homelessness and move immediately into rental housing.

I’m not sure what the future holds, or the effect that OERAP will have in our community, but I am hopeful that SB 282 will help those in need. Family Promise is committed to helping families in our community, and we are excited to be able to expand our capacity to do so.

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