Failed state software for emergency rental assistance is where legislators should focus attention as 10,000 Oregon families face housing instability.
State officials continue to applaud themselves for standing up for vulnerable Oregonians amid the pandemic. In a recent op-ed, (“Legislators must protect families facing eviction with special session fix,” Dec. 5,) Sen. Kayse Jama, D-Portland, and Rep. Julie Fahey, D-West Eugene/Junction City, wrote of their proposal, aimed at a legislative special session this month, to extend protections against eviction for tenants waiting for the state to process their applications for rental assistance. But what the legislators should really have focused their attention on is why another failed state software system has left as many as 10,000 Oregon families facing housing instability.
Known as Allita 360, the software for processing rental assistance applications was purchased without a competitive bidding process or stakeholder input. The state has been aware of problems with the software since February, when it launched a fund to compensate landlords for missed rent. Yet, it stuck with the software for the May rollout of the Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program. As with the landlord fund, the emergency rental assistance program has been plagued by system crashes, ineffective notification processes and a serious lack of clear communication from administrators. Applications have piled up, leaving renters’ requests for help in limbo for months. And landlords have spent hours — if not days – online, with no assurance that their renters’ applications had even made it into the program.
Keeping renters housed is our top priority too. That is why rental property owners have been collaborating daily with renters throughout the pandemic to navigate the complex 27-page rental assistance application and ensure their applications are moving through the system.
Leaders have called this an evictions crisis. But actual eviction filings for nonpayment of rent in November – after the expiration of the eviction moratorium were half of what they were in pre-pandemic 2019, based on our analysis of court records. Landlords aren’t looking to evict renters – they are just looking to get paid what they’re owed. The state could resolve many of the existing eviction filings by fixing the broken rental assistance software and simply providing clarity to landlords about who is in the system and where they are in the process of receiving payment for rent. If legislators want to truly help renters this winter, they need to hold the housing agency accountable and fix the barriers to accessing rental assistance.
Before the launch of the rental assistance program, the Legislature passed two bills prohibiting, at least temporarily, evictions for nonpayment of rent. In both cases, the text of the bills was kept secret and not available for public comment until they were voted on in committee. These moratoriums inadvertently created a legal landscape where an eviction notice became the only tool to compel a resident to apply for assistance if they have not done so on their own.
At the same time, there hasn’t been enough publicity statewide of the millions in rental assistance that people could seek. In many cases, according to rental housing providers and media accounts, renters said they were unaware of the assistance available to them until speaking with a judge at an eviction proceeding.
Three months after the failures of the rental assistance portal became clear, Oregon Housing and Community Services, the state’s housing agency, paid $1.2 million to a private third-party vendor to hand process the logjam of more than 28,000 applications. The agency reports show 145 private employees processing applications at an abysmal average of 1.2 applications per day per contractor.
Even today, now that the state has paused taking in new applications, state reports show a stunning weekly decline in the number of applications processed.
The state’s housing agency and Gov. Kate Brown have stated that we have enough funding to pay every application in the system before it closed Dec. 1, including the 10,000 families whose applications have languished in administrative uncertainty for months, and are no longer covered by the eviction protections extended by the Legislature.
If the state matched court records for nonpayment eviction filings to applications in the system, and hired a qualified third-party nonprofit to cut the checks (as directed by treasury guidelines), they could pay out all of the assistance well before the new year.
Those same leaders calling on rental housing providers to “do the right thing” and not move forward with evictions should call on the state to fix the failed software and issue the rental assistance for those who have applied.
Oregon renters and rental housing providers have done their part for 18 months. Now it’s time for Oregon’s leaders to hold the agency accountable and cut the checks. No Oregonian should be evicted due to administrative mismanagement.
About the author
Imse is the executive director of Multifamily NW, an association of landlords, rental housing providers and advocates whose members represent more than 250,000 units of rental housing in Oregon.