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‘I can’t afford a life’

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Jean Bishop makes her way into her motor home in Phoenix Thursday.
As governor calls for special session, Phoenix couple can’t pay rent, gov’t not helpful in getting them assistance, they say

As far as Phoenix resident Jean Bishop is concerned, the state of Oregon doesn’t care about people like her who are on a low or fixed income.

That is in part because Bishop — who is 63 years old, doesn’t have a job and lives in an RV park with her disabled husband — has applied for renter’s assistance and has yet to see a dime.

But Bishop, who has applied for the money through at least three different agencies, doesn’t think she’ll ever get it.

“I feel like we’re one of those that gets dropped in the Grand Canyon and forgotten about,” she said. “Anybody that’s low-income, I don’t feel they get the help they should get.”

Her comments come the same week Gov. Kate Brown announced a special session of the Legislature Dec. 13 to tackle the issue of eviction protection and a handful of other items related to housing.

Not only are legislative fixes on the issue necessary as Oregon heads into the winter months, Brown said, but nearly all of the $289 million in federal emergency rental assistance the state received so far has been requested by renters. In response, the Oregon Housing and Community Services said Dec. 1 it would pause accepting new applications for renter’s assistance.

Brown stated in a news release that although she continues to work with federal agencies to get more emergency rental assistance funding, “it is clear that a state solution is needed to address the urgent and immediate needs of Oregon renters.”

Her proposed solutions for the Legislature to pass and send to her desk include extending eviction safe harbor protections for each individual who has applied for rental assistance; ensuring landlords are paid in full for the rent they are owed; providing up to $90 million in additional rental assistance; and $100 million to transition from “large-scale pandemic-related emergency rental assistance to long-term, locally delivered eviction prevention services.”

Bishop likes the thought of additional money for low-income renters to last her through the winter.

“Oh, that would be a total blessing, and I’d be able to fix my motor home, probably,” Bishop said.

The couple earn $1,045 a month between her retirement and husband’s Social Security disability checks. Their rent is $675. On Dec. 31, it will go up to $700.

“It’s killer,” Bishop said of her situation. “I don’t have a life because I can’t afford a life.”

Not too far away from the Bishops’ RV is the Phoenix-based nonprofit Rogue Action Center. The group has been working since 2017 on a number of different projects, including finding housing solutions for low-income families and lobbying in Salem.

Rogue Action Center was one of more than 60 organizations that have openly supported Brown convening a special session on housing protections — even before the announcement earlier this week.

“We’ve been working together to call for this session for months, and we’re so glad to see the governor has recognized the urgent need,” said Michelle Glass, director of Rogue Action Center.

The Mail Tribune reached out to the Southern Oregon Rental Owners Association for comment, but John Stout, a chapter president for the organization, said he would wait for some tangible results to come out of the special session before commenting.

Glass, meanwhile, put the need for eviction protection in perspective, saying Southern Oregon has long seen rising rents and low vacancy rates. Adding to that the pandemic and the Almeda fire, she said, translates into a “multi-level crisis” for housing, especially since the latter event wiped out a lot of the valley’s existing affordable housing stock.

“Southern Oregon cannot afford to have any more families displaced right now in this moment of crisis — especially not people who have done what the state asked them to do,” Glass said.

“This is not something we can wait and see on, because we are not prepared as a state, we don’t have a safety net in place to deal with preventable evictions — that is devastating for families,” Glass added.

Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, whose district covers Rogue Action Center, noted that she has been in touch with the nonprofit over the last several weeks.

“We’ve been hearing from tenants, landlords and we’ve definitely heard from organizations that represent both,” Marsh said. “The primary theme has been frustration [and] a demand that the state get the rents owed out more quickly. So, yes, it definitely matters to hear from people on all sides of the issue.”

RAC and entities who contacted the governor point to SB278, which requires landlords and courts to delay evictions for nonpayment for 60 days if the tenant provides documentation of application for rental assistance.

But Glass said the system processing applications is overwhelmed and is “not working as intended.”

“We hope that when lawmakers see that the fix they put in place did not work out the way we thought it would, they would act swiftly to make sure that no one in Oregon is evicted while they are waiting for their renter’s assistance application to be processed,” she said. “That’s a preventable eviction that doesn’t help anybody.”

Marsh said that while the state has worked to help renters and stabilize landlords over the past year, there have been problems.

“It has turned out the state has been much slower in issuing those checks than any of us would have ever wanted or predicted,” Marsh said. “The 60-day safe harbor period has expired, making those tenants susceptible to eviction and putting landlords, really, in an impossible position, trying to figure out what to do.”

The special session, she hopes, will lead to an adjustment in the safe-harbor period.

“What we’re going to do in the special session is ... adjust the safe harbor policy so that once a tenant has applied to the state for rental assistance, they are protected from eviction until the check is issued,” Marsh said. “At the same time, landlords will be guaranteed payment regardless of what happens.”

Even before the special session has begun, lawmakers, including Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass, are arguing over how to make fixes to housing protections.

“The quickest way to provide financial relief to renters and landlords is through the emergency board (e-board) at the Legislature, which was created for this exact purpose,” she wrote in an email to the newspaper. A special session is cumbersome and unnecessary to cover the need[s] of those who have already applied for assistance. The risk of the special session politics could cause ongoing harm at a time of year where people need help now.”

Democrats shot back in a mass prepared statement, saying the e-board is not the right answer.

“Extending these protections should be a bipartisan solution to help Oregonians in need. This can only be done during a special session — the Emergency Board does not have the authority to extend these protections and keep people housed,” said Sen. Kayse Jama, D-Portland, and Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, chairs of the legislative committees on housing.

Whatever politicians in Salem decide later this month on eviction protection and landlord assistance, Bishop is not optimistic.

“I don’t look for it to pass,” she said. “Whatever northern Oregon wants, they get; whatever Southern Oregon needs, we have to fight for. … We feel like we’re not listened to in Salem.”

Glass was hopeful lawmakers would stop playing politics for the special session

“There’s nothing more important for health, for well-being than stable housing,” she said. “I want to make sure people’s lives don’t get lost in the shuffle because people are playing politics. This isn’t about politics; this is about what we all need.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.