Late on rent? $5.2 million available for those at risk of eviction, homelessness
Many households in the Salem area are just one missing paycheck away from failing to cover rent, water and other vital utilities.
With layoffs, furloughs and reduced hours, people missing work sickened by COVID-19 or caring for a sick relative, the pandemic is exacerbating the precarious financial situations of many area families.
Multifamily NW housing association survey showed 12.8% of renters in Salem did not pay their rent on time in July. June and May showed even higher rates of non-payment.
An eviction moratorium is in place until Sept. 30, and many utility companies have halted disconnections due to non-payment. But that does stop the bills and unpaid rent from piling up in overwhelming proportions.
Local advocates fear a wave of evictions and increased homeless once moratoriums expire.
They hope $5.2 million in federal and state funds can help families in Marion and Polk counties stay housed, but they warned that the funds must be used by Dec. 30 or risk losing it.
Housing services care providers also worry the funds are not nearly enough to help the thousands of people struggling to pay rent.
"We know those sources are not going to cover all of it," said Ashley Hamilton, program director for the ARCHES Project. "The devastation in this community has been quite sizeable due to COVID, especially for those experiencing poverty and those with minority status."
Most recent data from the Oregon Employment Department puts the Salem-area unemployment rate at just over 10%. In February, before the pandemic took hold in Oregon, the rate was 4%.
Many of the losses were seen in already lower-paying jobs in hospitality and food service.
"This has really hammered the working class and the working poor," said Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency Executive Director Jimmy Jones.
Historically, higher unemployment rates have been tied to higher homelessness rates, Jones said.
It is inevitable, he said, that the pandemic and shutdown will lead to an increase.
"We are going to a see maybe an uptick of 5-10% statewide as a result of this," Jones said. "It’s going to pose enormous challenges to us next year and in the years to follow."
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ARCHES, a part of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, is charged with distributing the money, allocated from the state emergency board and the CARES Act.
So far, the agency has used $1.2 of the funds to help 485 people pay rent, utilities and RV space payments.
The funds also can be used as part of a front-loaded "housing stabilization package" to help cover bills in the ensuing months.
Hamilton recounted working with a woman who took time off work to care for a relative sick with COVID-19. Her family member died and the woman lost her job due to her time off.
Not only was she now dealing with the loss of a loved one, but she was then facing late rent payments and past due bills, Hamilton said.
The rental assistance program helped the woman with those bills. "She could just take some time to be with her family and attempt to put her life back together," Hamilton said.
Households have to be below the 80% median area income to qualify for the assistance, meaning a family of four with a household income of $56,000 could qualify.
The applications are processed "first come, first serve." U.S. citizenship is not required to enroll.
Hamilton said service providers worry about people not being aware of the assistance as their late payment notices pile up.
Many of the people struggling with rent are those who have never accessed services before but were just barely making ends meet before the pandemic.
"We've been told for years and years and years that the majority of Americans are just one paycheck away from losing their home or falling into poverty," Hamilton said. "We always kind of heard of it, but I think the pandemic really brought that to the surface."
ARCHES also is working with existing groups to target minority populations like migrant, Latinx, farmworker and Pacific Islander communities. The groups, who already have relationships with these communities, are able to become sub-recipients and disburse the funds directly to these populations.
"COVID is disproportionately impacting people of minority status in our community," she said. "COVID is absolutely ever-present and continuing to increase in rates within farmworkers and Latinx communities. We want to ensure this resource is really accessible to these populations."
Hamilton said another portion of the program works with people who recently fell into homelessness due to the pandemic.
She cited the experience of a family who was gainfully employed until they faced the first round of layoffs due to COVID-19 and the shutdown. Their rent kept piling up into the thousands of dollars, and they eventually voluntarily left their home.
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"They couldn't be evicted, but it was weighing heavily on them," Hamilton said.
They were living out of a car when they entered the program. ARCHES was able to get them back into a home with the assistance funds.
High rents and rising housing costs in Salem aren't making it any easier to deal with the crisis, Jones said.
"Because the rent burden has increased so much, and it’s taking up a bigger and bigger percentage of people’s income, that does not give people the flexibility for events like this," he said. “You have a lot more people living on the precipice of homelessness.”
Are you struggling with rising rental and housing costs in the Salem area? Please contact reporter Whitney Woodworth at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your experience.
Jones and Hamilton expressed concern about what would happen when the $5.2 million in rent and utility assistance has been depleted.
Hamilton said early reviews, based on March's unemployment claims alone, estimated $6.3 million would meet 30% of the need in the area.
"We can document the need level in our community, so we know this is just a drop in the bucket," Hamilton said. "The longer COVID goes on, there's absolutely a concern with what this is actually going to look like."
What to know
Those looking to enroll in the program can go to mwvcaa.org/utility-and-rental-assistance or call 03-399-9080 extension 4003. A list of needed documents and frequently asked questions are available on the website.
Hamilton said it is better to be proactive and not wait until getting a disconnection or eviction notice.
Wait times are anticipated and she said people in the program should ensure they answer their phones as processors call back.