Anna Zamarripa has worked for Capital Property Management for six years, keeping track of what each of the company’s 2,100 tenants owe in rent at the dozens of apartment complexes it manages.
But since September, her job has taken a different turn: For 75 of those tenants who cannot afford rent, she has spent half her working hours trying to collect from the state of Oregon—and its struggling program to pay emergency rental assistance.
“I’m going to go to the mattress,” she says. “I’m going to do everything I can for this resident, but it does infuriate me that whoever put this system in place and the powers that be don’t seem to be interested in helping me do their job.”
Her key demand—that the state do its job—reflects what landlords across Oregon have been demanding: on-time payment of rent.
In May, the state agency Oregon Housing & Community Services set up software called Allita 360 so tenants who couldn’t pay rent could apply for federal relief. That money was supposed to be mailed to landlords within 60 days of tenants applying.
Instead, Zamarippa has found a slew of technical problems that impede her ability to access the money using Allita.
She doesn’t know why a tenant who applied in May and has been approved for payment since August still hasn’t gotten any money. She’s had to chase down applications for tenants who provided the wrong contact emails. And she can’t figure out why the software keeps auto-filling incorrect information onto Capital Property Management’s forms.
OHCS estimates 11,200 renters have applied for relief checks and have not received any funds for more than 60 days.
Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) has solution for the snafu: call a special session of the Legislature to further extend the safe harbor that banned evictions of tenants who had applied for rental assistance.
But that’s one extension too many for landlords.
Property owners like those who employ Zamarippa want their money. They want the state to fix the technical problems and speed up rent payments. And after 20 months without payments, some landlords are finished waiting for a check that may or may not be in the mail.
Their objections, along with those of moderates in the Democratic caucus, including Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose), may foreclose the option of a special session.
More Housing Now, a political action committee that represents large landlords, opposes a special session and is instead seeking to have Oregon Housing & Community Services show up at every county eviction court and cut checks on the spot, says lawyer John DiLorenzo. (Other landlord groups, including Multifamily NW, oppose a special session.) The problem with extending the safe harbor, DiLorenzo says, “is that it will place even more pressure on housing providers who need revenue in order to, in turn, satisfy mortgage, payroll, utility, insurance and property tax obligations.”
But as proof a deal is still possible, Rep. Julie Fahey (D-West Eugene), chair of the House’s Housing Committee, points to three occasions since the pandemic began when the Legislature reached bipartisan agreements to keep tenants in their homes and get landlords paid, including a $150 million landlord compensation fund. “There’s no reason why we can’t do it again, especially given that thousands of households are now in danger of eviction,” she says. “We have to come together to protect these Oregonians.”
And the issue has become a first key division in the 2022 governor’s race, where Kotek is the woman to beat for the Democratic nomination.
One of Kotek’s rivals in the Democratic primary, Oregon State Treasurer Tobias Read, blasted the Legislature last month for bureaucratic failures (even though he supports extending the moratorium). “Thousands of Oregonians are in danger of eviction because the Legislature and governor haven’t been able to ensure that their rent relief payments are processed quickly,” says Read. “The money is there.”
Sen. Johnson, who’s running as an independent for governor, has long been a stalwart ally of landlords as Kotek has pushed renter protection. “The state doesn’t need a special session,” Johnson says. “Ninety politicians in Salem aren’t going to solve the problem. The governor needs to get the money out the door and into the hands of the people who need it.”
And Republican House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, who’s eyeing a run, openly opposes a special session.
“Our state has the funds to help Oregonians,” says Drazan in a statement. “We need the agency to do its job of getting this money out the door. We don’t need a special session.”
The political rivalry may make a compromise more fraught—especially because Gov. Kate Brown says she won’t convene a special session unless she knows the votes for an extension are solid.
Speaker Kotek says she supports the work of Fahey and her senate counterpart “to help households that are on the brink of eviction.” She adds: “No Oregonian should be evicted for nonpayment while money is on the way.”
State officials acknowledge their system has left tenants vulnerable.
“We know that time is of the essence for Oregon families who are waiting for their rental assistance applications to be processed,” says OHCS spokeswoman Delia Hernández. She notes that Oregon ranks sixth in the nation for the percentage of federal rent relief money it has approved or distributed, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
In Multnomah County, where county commissioners gave tenants an extra 30 days of safe harbor, officials haven’t pursued an extension, deferring the matter to state lawmakers.
“We are in an unprecedented time where there are millions of dollars of resources available for tenants,” says the Oregon Law Center’s Becky Straus. “No tenant should experience displacement right now because the system failed to process on time. We need the Legislature and the governor to take action. Tenant advocates are grateful for landlords who are being patient with the obstacles in the system. That said, relying on the good graces of landlords to hold off is not good public policy.”
Some landlords are being gracious—in part because they see the self-interest in waiting for the government money.
Sue Shimada runs another Portland company, Mainlander Property Management, which handles mostly single-family homes. Only eight of the company’s 50 renters who have applied for rental assistance still have safe harbor, says Shimada.
She’s advising property owners whose portfolios she manages to sit tight.
“We would just want to get the money,” says Shimada. “So I’m telling owners, ‘I know that your time is up, but it appears to be coming soon. So let’s just continue to wait.’”
Shimada admits a certain pessimism in dealing with state assistance.
“I wasn’t surprised,” she says. “My husband was laid off due to COVID, and I know the struggles we had with the state bureaucracy for unemployment. It seems to be along those same lines, where the software is difficult. One hand isn’t talking to the other, and it was to be expected that a moratorium of 60 or 90 days was really optimistic.”
If you think landlords are fed up now, just wait.
The current fight may pale in comparison to the evictions that come after February, when landlords can file evictions for pandemic rental debt—the unpaid rent that stacked up between April 2020 and June 2021.
And, at least in Multnomah County, $93 million in applications for rental debt assistance already exceed the $39 million in current funding available, though more may be forthcoming from the federal government.