Thousands in Oregon face deportation as lawmakers scramble

Inside Musonda Mwango’s Portland apartment are details from her life that turned the property into a home. His guitars hang in the corner where he composes music, Christmas decorations adorn the walls, and photos of his three children – who live with him – are proudly displayed.

But as the days go by and the bills pile up, Mwango is among a growing number of households facing eviction in Oregon, even as he waits for state aid.

A “Now Leasing” sign hangs on a staircase of an apartment building in southeast Portland, Ore. On Wednesday, December 9, 2021. As of October, the most recent data provided by the US Census Bureau, more than 67,000 Oregon households reported feeling “not at all sure” that they would be able to pay the next month’s rent. (AP Photo / Sara Cline)

Sara Cline / AP

“We are entering winter, and a time of celebration,” the 36-year-old father said at the end of November. “And yet you also have this thing in mind that this place, which we call home, might in fact not be our home much longer.”

In Oregon, where a long-standing housing crisis has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, tenants on the brink of eviction are losing the safety nets that kept them housed. Despite a huge need, the statewide rental assistance program stopped receiving new requests once all federal funds were requested and committed to tenants.

Oregon has a higher rate of homeless people than almost any other state in the United States. A 2020 federal review found that 35 people in Oregon are homeless per 10,000. Only three states had a higher rate: New York (47 people per 10,000), Hawaii (46 people per 10,000) and California (41 people per 10,000).

Related: Prevent evictions and help farmers top the Oregon special session agenda

Today, around 8,355 households are at risk of eviction because the protections that keep them in housing expired after waiting for rent assistance for more than two months. More than 22,000 households are still waiting to be considered for help.

The need for help continues to grow, especially as many tenants struggle to pay months of rent arrears. And now, as more than 67,000 Oregon households say they don’t feel “at all confident” that they can cover next month’s bills, according to the most recent US Census Bureau survey, lawmakers will scramble to find solutions in a special session starting Monday.

Due to the huge backlog of rent assistance applications, Gov. Kate Brown signed a law in June that gives tenants a 60-day period during which they cannot be evicted due to a lack of payment. , provided that they provide proof that they have requested assistance. .

After the federal moratorium on evictions expired, other states put in place similar eviction limitations. In Connecticut and Virginia, a landlord must file for Federal Rent Assistance before removing a tenant. In Michigan, the eviction process is on hold while a request for help is pending. In New Jersey and New York, most tenants cannot be evicted until January.

Mwango applied for rent assistance in July and was approved in August. At the end of November, Mwango had still not received aid from the state. He has now passed the period of protection and, under state law, may be deported.

Sybil Hebb, director of legislative advocacy for the Oregon Law Center, poses for a photo outside her office building in downtown Portland, Ore. On Wednesday, December 8, 2021. Hebb works with tenants facing eviction.  Since July, more than 2,200 eviction cases for non-payment have been filed in Oregon.  (AP Photo / Sara Cline)

Sybil Hebb, director of legislative advocacy for the Oregon Law Center, poses for a photo outside her office building in downtown Portland, Ore. On Wednesday, December 8, 2021. Hebb works with tenants facing eviction. Since July, more than 2,200 eviction cases for non-payment have been filed in Oregon. (AP Photo / Sara Cline)

Sara Cline / AP

“We get calls every day from people who find themselves in this situation,” said Sybil Hebb, director of legislative advocacy for the Oregon Law Center. “The damning word I would use to describe these calls is just pervasive desperation and fear.”

As of July, Hebb said more than 2,200 eviction proceedings have been filed in Oregon for non-payment. Between 1,000 and 3,000 new requests for rental assistance are submitted each week.

“If we let families down, we are going to push people towards the real threat of homelessness. It is unreasonable not to take action to prevent this, ”Hebb said.

Officials say a significant number of people are asking for state aid to pay off rent accumulated since the pandemic, along with increasing late fees.

“Even if someone has started a new job and now has a job… they may still have thousands of dollars in rent owed to them,” said Margaret Salazar, director of the ‘Oregon Housing and Community Services.

Of the $ 289 million in federal rent assistance funding in Oregon, $ 119 million has yet to reach tenants. Despite this, in November, Oregon Housing and Community Services announced that almost all federal funds allocated to the state had been requested. As a result, the state agency stopped accepting applications in December.

The shutdown of applications also eliminates the period of protection for people applying for Oregon’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program after December 1, although they can still apply through local community programs. However, not all counties or cities in Oregon have rental assistance.

“It is clear from the continued influx of requests and the demand that has been demonstrated that Oregon needs additional rental assistance,” said Salazar.

Texas and New York have also committed all of their money or indicated that funds will run out soon.

Oregon state officials have requested an additional $ 198 million from the US Treasury, but it is not known whether the state will get it. The treasury should start reallocating money from places that haven’t spent it.

Following growing calls from lawyers and lawmakers, Brown announced that the Legislature would return for a special session devoted to protections against evictions.

State Senator Kayse Jama, who heads a legislative housing committee, said there were three solutions that “must be in place at the same time” to keep Oregonians housed – additional funding for the program rental assistance, extending the eviction period to 60 days. and speed up the processing of rental aid.

Brown announced a package of bills for Monday’s special session on Friday, which includes $ 215 million to prevent winter evictions and the transition to long-term eviction prevention services provided locally. Of the proposed funds, $ 100 million would be allocated for emergency rent assistance. Additionally, there is a proposal to extend the current 60-day eviction protection period – allowing the protections to remain in place for a tenant until their request has been processed.

“It’s not a crisis of numbers, it’s a crisis of people,” Mwango said. “People who are really trying to move forward and have been derailed by the pandemic – not their fault and not because they are lazy. “

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Cline is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative Corps. Report for America is a national, non-profit service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to cover undercover issues.

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