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Oregon’s Housing Agency Distributed $426 Million in Emergency Rental Assistance, but is Unable to Verify Funds Were Distributed Properly
As the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world on its head, thousands of Oregonians were threatened with eviction as they struggled to pay rent in an economy that had stalled.

In response, Oregon stood up the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (Oregon ERA) to provide federal funding to help keep Oregonians in their homes. Oregon’s housing agency, Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS), was charged with administering the program under enormous pressure to get millions of dollars out the door as quickly as possible.

OHCS was able to distribute $426 million in emergency rental assistance as of June 2023. But according to an audit released today by the Oregon Audits Division, the framework under which this occurred came with substantial risk. OHCS employed limited oversight of the funds and, in its haste, skipped critical controls, including over financial accounting and contract administration.

These same control weaknesses were highlighted by financial auditors in the Statewide Single Audit released earlier this year. In fact, the severity and pervasive aspect of the control weaknesses led financial auditors to issue an adverse opinion for the program — the first from the division in more than 25 years.

While the urgency brought by this situation was understandable, it’s still critically important agencies implement adequate financial controls to ensure funds are distributed to the people who should be receiving them. Money that is spent out of compliance with federal guidelines runs the risk of being clawed back by the federal government. Fraud was a major risk for Oregon ERA; according to multiple community action agencies, they denied approximately $37 million requested through 1,813 potentially fraudulent applications.

Oregon ERA also suffered from the rushed implementation of new software and a fragmented customer service system, resulting in application processing delays and communications challenges that frustrated consumers and local partners.

“There is no doubt OHCS, like all of Oregon government, was working under unprecedented emergency conditions during the pandemic,” said Audits Director Kip Memmott. “As auditors, it’s our job to ensure public monies are being spent in accordance with program guidelines and properly accounted for. It’s extremely concerning that OHCS is unable to verify whether millions of dollars went to the Oregonians who needed and deserved this money the most.”

Auditors have multiple recommendations for OHCS, among them:

• Better prepare for future emergencies given the agency’s important role under Oregon’s emergency management framework, including conducting an after-action review of Oregon ERA with local partners;
• Improve internal controls over contract monitoring;
• Improve internal controls over reporting program outcomes, especially when it comes to reporting the number of Oregon ERA applications paid, households assisted and dollars spent;
• Improve internal controls over detecting and preventing fraud; and
• Continue efforts to obtain timely, complete, and quality client data to better understand and respond to Oregon’s housing needs.

Oregon ERA ended in June 2023. However, the lessons learned from this program are still applicable. OHCS has now been tasked with administering millions of dollars to address Oregon’s ongoing homelessness crisis, a major priority for the Governor. By implementing the audit recommendations and applying lessons learned, OHCS can ensure future programs are successful and funding is properly accounted for.

Read the full report on the Secretary of State website:

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