Oregon steps up efforts to centralize rent assistance program as arrears persist
Oregon will hire an outside provider to process rent assistance applications for the state’s next federal funding cycle to avoid yet another alarming backlog.
Social service organizations statewide have handled requests for emergency rental assistance throughout the pandemic, but these agencies have struggled over the summer to meet unprecedented demand , leaving thousands of tenants waiting for help.
Frontline workers at these organizations blamed a centralized app portal Oregon introduced for Oregon’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which they said was plagued by problems. backend that slowed down their ability to process requests. Prior to the rollout of the new software system in May, tenants had applied for funding directly from local agencies.
The state is now doubling down on its centralized approach by sticking to the software system that has frustrated local agencies and hiring an outside firm to handle all claims processing.
Margaret Salazar, executive director of Oregon Housing and Community Services, the state agency overseeing rental assistance programs, said the centralized application portal allows the state to reach more tenants in the need.
“We have the benefit of looking at best practices across the country to understand what works for states and communities that are moving dollars quickly to the door,” said Salazar. “One of the things we found that they all have in common is that they use a centralized approach to the processing function. “
Public Partnerships LLC is in talks with the state to serve as the sole application processor for a new round of $ 156 million rent assistance that the state hopes to begin distributing this fall.
The company has primarily served as an intermediary for home health services, but has recently expanded to administer COVID-19 relief programs for state and local governments.
Oregon first hired Public Partnerships in August to process about 8,500 applications for Oregon’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program as the state tried to tackle its growing backlog. In about a month’s work, the company has paid out aid to cover the rent of 600 tenants, while around 29% of the applications it has been assigned are still awaiting initial review.
However, Salazar said his processing rate was much faster than that of many local agencies.
According to state data, Multnomah County distributed money to pay rent for 987 tenants, or 8.3% of those who asked for help; Washington County distributed cash to 219 tenants, or 4.5% of those who asked for help; and Clackamas County distributed cash to 80 tenants, or 4% of those who asked for help. These counties also have separate direct allocations from the federal government which they distribute.
Statewide, nearly 36,000 Oregon households have requested more than $ 251 million in rent and utility assistance through the Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program since l opening of applications in May, according to a state tracking system. Only around 19%, or 6,908 tenants, have received assistance so far. Another 5.4% has been approved for financing, but their owners have yet to receive that money.
The current program will distribute $ 204 million in rent assistance. Tenants who have applied recently are expected to receive funding under the next round of federal assistance.
The delays of several months could be disastrous for tenants in Oregon, who are protected from eviction after they apply for rent assistance and notify their landlords – but only for a period of 60 days. (Multnomah County has extended the window to 90 days for its residents.)
The backlog could also compromise Oregon’s access to federal rent assistance funds.
From September 30, the US Treasury Department will have the ability to recover funds from states it deems “unable or unwilling” to spend the money. He also said he would put the next round of funding on hold until states show they have significantly spent their current money.
Salazar said she didn’t think Oregon would end up losing funding because it showed the need for help was there.
Other states have struggled to get rent assistance as well, and Oregon has made significant strides in the past month. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that only 15 states allocated or paid a higher percentage of their federal allowance than Oregon. Oregon has set a new target for community agencies to process at least 2,000 to 3,000 requests per week combined and for public partnerships to process 500 requests per week to try to clear the backlog within seven weeks, said Salazar.
For the next round of funding, however, Salazar said the state hopes these community agencies can focus on outreach to ensure tenants are aware of the money available to them while public partnerships assume. the whole processing role.
Jimmy Jones, executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, which distributes rent assistance to tenants in Marion and Polk counties, said he was cautiously optimistic the new approach would allow tenants in areas across the ‘State where agencies were slow to process requests to get help faster.
However, he said he would have preferred a layered approach where some requests are handled by public partnerships, but agencies that have been efficient at handling requests continue to work.
“Otherwise it’s high stakes poker,” Jones wrote in an email. “And the fate of every tenant in need will depend on how well it works.”
It will also depend on the reliability of the state’s software system.
Oregon Housing and Community Services paid software vendor Allita 360 $ 395,482 to implement a centralized enforcement system in May.
But local agencies complained that problems in the system prevented them from processing requests and resulted in a loss of information. Several other states have reported similar problems.
Brian Greenwood, president of Allita 360, rebuffed these claims. He said in an email that local community agencies “do not have the necessary staff or expertise for a federal program of this complexity and size.” Salazar said the public partnerships staff were able to effectively process requests through the system.
Oregon was still considering ditching the software after hearing concerns from local agencies, and even accepted arguments from other vendors. But Salazar said they ultimately decided it wasn’t worth switching providers at this point.
“The reality is that changing the software would have required us to waste our time and attention on processing requests and distributing money to people who need it,” said Salazar.