Secretary of State to audit Oregon’s rent assistance program

SALEM, Ore. (KGW) — After nearly two years of struggling to meet historic need amid the pandemic, Oregon’s rent assistance program is about to go under a microscope, courtesy of the Secretary of State’s office.

Secretary Shemia Fagan released a list of planned audits Thursday, which included an in-depth analysis of the Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS) Department, the agency responsible for doling out emergency rent assistance.

In the months after COVID-19 hit, OHCS officials acknowledged the state’s rent assistance system was overwhelmed by a tidal wave of applications. KGW has profiled several renters who waited months for the state to send them their checks during the pandemic.

In November, Musonda Mwango told KGW he’d applied for rent assistance in June and was approved in August. Months later, he still hadn’t seen a dime. Housing advocates said his case wasn’t rare.

“Will I be able to keep my kids in the same school? In the same home?” he wondered.

RELATED: Straight Talk: Landlords and tenants frustrated with rent assistance delays

State lawmakers came to Salem for a one-day special session focused on housing and rent protections in December, and they demanded to know what was behind the backlog.

“I’ve heard [the program] called a lot of things, but I’ve never heard it called successful,” said State Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, during the session.

OHCS Executive Director Margaret Salazar, who has since been tapped as a regional director of housing under the Biden Administration, assured lawmakers the program had made major gains in 2021. Recent projections showed Oregon had doled out rent assistance to 19,600 Oregon renters and was nearing the last $298 million in federal funds.

Still, lawmakers present for a joint hearing had questions. State Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, at one point asked Salazar if the department would be open to a third-party review of the program.

“Accountability is important, and we agree there’s been a lot of conversation about this program,” Salazar replied. “We are absolutely happy to have those conversations. We think that they would be most appropriate after September 2022, when we see a lot of the programming that you all are considering come to a close.”

Fast forward to February, and it appears the Secretary of State isn’t willing to wait.

The Oregonian/OregonLive reported that the office’s director of audits described “Issues cited by legislators and other stakeholders include technical challenges with rental assistance software and public communication challenges” as part of the reason for the audit.

Officials haven’t said how long the audit will take or when the results might be released.

“We welcome the audit so that we can better understand what’s worked and hasn’t worked with this program. This will help us to better serve Oregonians,” an OHCS spokesperson told KGW via email.

They added that rent assistance will continue to be dispensed while the audit takes place. The state is still accepting rent assistance applications after receiving a new round of funding from Oregon lawmakers. Tenants can apply here.

OHCS staff also told KGW the state is only approving applications from those who have not yet received rent assistance. Renters applying for a second or third round of aid should reach out to local community action agencies or call 2-1-1.

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