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Agencies say Oregon’s faulty software is slowing rent assistance, putting renters at risk of eviction

A sign advertises apartments for rent in North Portland.  (Elliot Njus | The Oregonian/Oreg)
By Jamie Goldberg The Oregonian

A virtual training held by state housing officials last month devolved into a forum for frontline employees from social services organizations to rattle off a list of complaints about the state’s new rent assistance software.

One wrote in the chat box that their agency was distributing rent assistance “at least 2-3 times faster” before the state switched on the new system. Another said bugs had prompted their agency to move back to paper applications. Yet another questioned why the state hadn’t given providers time to test the new system before its May launch.

“I think it could be described as a tipping point,” said Molly Heiss, who is director of housing stabilization at NeighborImpact and attended the meeting. “We said we can’t make this system work as is.”

Oregon paid $395,482 to software vendor Allita 360 to implement a centralized application system for its federally funded, $204 million Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program. State officials hoped the new system would streamline the application process by funneling tenants to a single application portal, rather than requiring them to seek aid through nonprofits and community agencies across the state.

Instead, glitches in the system, coupled with an unprecedented need for assistance, have led to an alarming backlog in rental assistance applications.

That could have devastating consequences for renters no longer protected under a state eviction moratorium that expired in June. A federal moratorium lapsed over the weekend, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday announced a more limited eviction ban targeting counties where COVID-19 cases are spiking.

More than 24,000 Oregon households have requested nearly $177 million in rent and utility assistance through the program since applications opened in May. Less than 5% of those applications had been processed as of Monday with 1,185 households receiving a total of only $7.34 million.

“A lot of the narrative at the moment is that the primary problem is a lack of capacity at agencies statewide to deliver the services, and that’s just really not the case,” said Jimmy Jones, the legislative chair of the Community Action Partnership of Oregon, the state coalition of community action agencies. “There has been a huge amount of rental assistance that’s out there and available, but this particular program has gone very slow from the get-go because of the policy choice to use this software system.”

Oregon lawmakers in June approved a stopgap measure to try to stave off a wave of evictions following the expiration of the state’s moratorium, passing legislation that protects renters from evictions for 60 days after they apply for rent assistance and notify their landlords. Multnomah County approved a 30-day extension to those protections last month.

Those protections could mean little if applications aren’t approved within 60 days, or 90 days in Multnomah County. Delays could put tenants across the state at risk of eviction.

They could also cost Oregon millions in rent assistance dollars. Under federal guidance, Oregon must expend 65% of its $204 million in federal funding by the end of September or risk having leftover money redistributed to other states.

Software glitches

Quickly distributing millions in rent assistance was always going to be a challenge for agencies across the state, many of whom are now trying to process in a month the same number of applications they would typically expect in a year.

But those agencies say many of the pitfalls of the Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program could have been avoided if the state hadn’t insisted on implementing the Allita software.

Over the last year and a half, nonprofits and other organizations across the state that deliver rent assistance have hired staff and refined their own internal systems to handle an onslaught of applications. Through two previous state-run rental assistance programs, those agencies distributed more than $113 million.

Rather than continue to allow those agencies to process applications through their existing processes, the state rolled out a new application system for the Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Connor McDonnell, a spokesperson for Oregon Housing and Community Services, said the state contracted with Allita because it believed it would be easier for tenants to access, would ensure that application processes were consistent across the state and would allow the agency to be more transparent about how the money was being spent.

But Heiss, whose organization serves Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties, said agencies had little time to test out the new software program before it went live. When it did, she said, it quickly became clear that there were insurmountable issues with the system.

For a while, landlords couldn’t get into the system to accept payments, Heiss said. In other cases, she said payments were directed to the wrong landlord because an autofill feature would cause tenants to inadvertently name the wrong property owner in their applications.

A separate rent assistance fund run by the state, the Landlord Compensation Fund, also uses the Allita system, but Heiss said there is no way to tell in Allita if a landlord and tenant have both applied for assistance through the two separate programs. That’s led to checks cut to landlords who have already received assistance.

One of the most concerning issues with the Allita system, Heiss said, is that it doesn’t consistently save updates, which could lead to application errors.

That issue prompted NeighborImpact to start downloading information from the Allita system to fill out paper applications for tenants. Only 29% of applications submitted to the agency have been submitted for funding so far, but Heiss said moving applications to paper has significantly sped up the agency’s ability to process applications over the last several weeks.

“I think honestly we could be at 40% expended or more if we didn’t have to go through this process and then stick with it,” Heiss said. “I don’t want to sound like OHCS or Allita haven’t tried to be supportive. They really have, but they’ve not been forthright with themselves, I think, about the challenges of the system.”

Other states have had issues with the Allita system as well. Rhode Island switched to a new vendor in April after it became clear that issues with their application portal couldn’t be resolved.

Jones said his agency and others in Oregon have had problems moving applications forward in the process and trying to submit them for payment through the Allita software. He said many agencies around the state have been forced to develop workarounds to deal with the software bugs.

“It’s extra work,” Jones said. “It’s slowing things down. The workarounds are so frequent in fact that we’re really running a double process.”

Rethinking the process

The state has acknowledged the issues with Allita and the many complaints it’s generated from service providers, and it hired 63 temporary staffers earlier this summer to help speed approvals.

Margaret Salazar, executive director for Oregon Housing and Community Services, said the state is considering hiring a new administrator to oversee call centers, applications and the distribution of money. It’s also exploring the possibility of ditching Allita and implementing a new software system to distribute a new $156 million round of funding this fall.

But in an effort to speed up the application process now, the state agency told providers last week that they would hire a new vendor to process between 7,000 and 8,500 applications in the Portland metro region, which has seen the lion’s share of applications.

“As we analyzed trends and efforts of application movement through the system, it is clear that our existing efforts will not be sufficient to process these applications for this 60-day surge (90 days in Multnomah County) to ensure tenants receive protections under SB 278,” the agency said in a memo.

The agency declined to comment on the name of the vendor or the amount the state will pay for its services, saying contract negotiations remained ongoing.

As of Monday, 75% of the applications Multnomah County had received through the Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program still hadn’t had even an initial review. Approximately 72% of applications received by Clackamas County and 73% received by Washington County were still waiting for an initial review as well.

Denis Theriault, a spokesperson for Multnomah County, said the county and city of Portland received their own $55 million pool of funding directly from the federal government and have been able to use a portion of that assistance to direct funds to renters at immediate risk of eviction without having to go through the state system.

It is also distributing $44 million allocated to it by the state through the Allita system, but Theriault said the system’s glitches and the tremendous demand for aid have slowed the process.

“The platform is not designed to be an immediate response for such large-scale demand,” Theriault wrote in an email. “Accelerating the Allita application process to meet a 90-day timeframe will depend on additional resources from the state and ongoing technical support, which the state has already indicated they are committed to providing.”

Jones, who is also the executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, which is distributing rent assistance to tenants in Marion and Polk counties, said the outside contractor could help agencies process applications more quickly, but the added help might come too late.

“We’re so late in the game right now, even when that contract is signed and since they are going to be using the same software that the rest of us are using, it may take weeks or months for them to get up to speed,” Jones said. “It might well be the case that it might not have much of an impact until October or later and at that point, the 60-day safe harbor period for most people will begin to expire.”

A spike in evictions

Oregon is already beginning to see a spike in eviction filings, and renter advocates worry those filings will only increase in the coming months if rent assistance delays continue.

There were 216 eviction notices filed in Oregon for nonpayment from July 19 to 27, according to data compiled by the Oregon Law Center. In comparison, an average of 66 per month were filed in the first half of the year, when the state had an eviction moratorium in place.

Adrienne Harner is one of thousands of renters across the state whose application for rent assistance hasn’t yet been reviewed.

Harner and her boyfriend both lost their jobs early in the pandemic and only recently returned to full-time work. Harner, 47, said she ran through her savings trying to keep up with her bills last year and had to stop paying the rent on her Southeast Portland apartment in January after that money ran out.

She is now $10,000 behind in rent. Now, making significantly less at her new job than she did before the pandemic, she isn’t sure whether she’ll be able to scrape enough money together to make rent in the next several months.

Harner said she hoped the Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program would bridge the gap, but her application for assistance hasn’t even been reviewed since she submitted it May 24.

She worries that it won’t be processed in time for her to avoid eviction.

“We don’t have anywhere else to go,” Harner said. “We’re super scared. We have two elderly dogs. My health is not the best. It’s terrifying.”