Oregon auditors say they are unsure where millions of dollars of pandemic rental assistance relief money for landlords and tenants went, according to an audit from the secretary of state.
The Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS) agency was supposed to manage an emergency rental assistance program that spent $426 million during the COVID-19 pandemic, but auditors say they still can’t determine how many Oregonians were helped by the money.
“There is no doubt OHCS, like all of Oregon government, was working under unprecedented emergency conditions during the pandemic,” said Audits Director Kip Memmott in a statement. “As auditors, it’s our job to ensure public monies are being spent in accordance with program guidelines and properly accounted for. It’s extremely concerning that OHCS is unable to verify whether millions of dollars went to the Oregonians who needed and deserved this money the most,” according to the audit.
“As a result, the agency has no way of knowing how much of the $426 million went to eligible Oregon recipients and how much was sent to landlords, renters, and non-eligible recipients in error,” the audit report said.
The audit also found that the program itself had a rocky rollout, with glitchy new software, poor customer service and delays in application processing for both tenants and landlords.
What auditors found, according to the state report:
- OHCS distributed $426 million in emergency rental assistance as of June 2023. However, because of limited oversight and controls, OHCS cannot be certain that spending met federal guidelines, or how much emergency funding went to eligible applicants. Also, the agency has not reliably determined how many total applications were paid, or households helped.
- Material weaknesses regarding contract oversight and monitoring resulted in an adverse opinion for the program in the Statewide Single Audit — the first adverse opinion issued in more than 25 years by the Oregon Audits Division.
- Renters and landlords experienced application-processing delays because of rushed implementation of new software. A fragmented customer service system resulted in communication challenges.
- OHCS was not prepared to respond to disaster-housing emergencies, despite its responsibility to do so under Oregon’s emergency management framework.
- OHCS took an equity-based approach to distributing funds. In the wake of Oregon ERA, OHCS is moving toward outcome-based contracting, tracking outcomes, and has hired an ombudsperson to handle client complaints.
“The urgency with which OHCS acted to distribute rental assistance during a global crisis is laudable,” said Oregon Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade in a statement. “As auditors, it’s our job to ensure state agencies properly account for how they spend public money. I encourage OHCS to work speedily to implement the recommendations in this report in preparation for future emergencies.”