Oregon lawmakers remain divided on proposal to extend eviction moratorium, putting special session in doubt

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By Jamie Goldberg | The Oregonian/OregonLive

 

Democrats in the Oregon Senate remain divided on a proposal that would extend the state’s residential eviction moratorium. That leaves Oregonians who have struggled with their rent during the pandemic in a state of uncertainty less than four weeks before the current moratorium expires on Dec. 31.

Members of the Oregon House have been circulating a proposal that would extend the eviction moratorium through the end of June for renters facing financial hardship and create a new fund for landlords whose tenants have fallen behind on rent.

But the proposal hasn’t received broad support in the Oregon Senate. It’s unclear that Gov. Kate Brown would call a special session to address the matter this month if lawmakers can’t agree on a plan. It’s also uncertain whether the governor would issue an executive order to extend the eviction moratorium into next year if a special session isn’t called.

“I want to see support, frankly, from Democrats and Republicans for the work that needs to be done,” Brown said during a press conference Friday, adding that she hoped to make a decision on whether to call a special session in the next few days. Her office didn’t respond to inquiries about potentially extending the moratorium.

Tenant advocates worry that thousands of Oregon renters could face eviction at the start of the New Year if lawmakers don’t act before the moratorium expires.

Data compiled by Multifamily NW, a rental industry group whose members include landlords and property managers, shows that between 12% and 15% of renters in Oregon have been unable to keep up with their rental payments during the pandemic. A survey conducted by Portland State University researchers found the situation to be considerably worse with 36% of 460 Oregon tenants surveyed reporting they owed back rent.

 

“Time is running out,” said Alison McIntosh, a spokesman for Neighborhood Partnerships, which runs the Oregon Housing Alliance. “With the eviction moratorium set to expire on Dec. 31, we know that renters across the state will be facing evictions very quickly, both in the middle of the worst spike in COVID cases that we’ve seen so far and the middle of winter. That is really concerning to us. We need the legislature to act to solve this problem.”

Brown extended the residential eviction ban through an executive order in September and it is possible that she could take a similar step if lawmakers don’t come to the consensus needed to warrant a special session. But the federal government’s eviction moratorium expires at the end of the year, and some observers believe that might undercut the legal standing of a new order from Brown.

Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, the chair of the work group who developed the House proposal, said a legislative solution would be better than an executive order because Oregon could pair the moratorium with financial help for landlords.

“I can’t think of a more compelling reason to come into session than to keep people housed during the pandemic,” Fahey said. “We think at least 20,000 Oregonians will be at risk of facing homelessness come Jan. 1 if we let the eviction moratorium expire without further action. There’s a real sense of urgency to take action to address this looming eviction crisis.”

Under the House proposal, renters who can show that they’ve experienced financial hardships since the start of the pandemic could not be evicted for missing rental payments through June 30, but would have to pay back any accumulated rent on July 1. The Legislature would also set aside $100 million in general fund money to go to existing rental assistance programs and a new landlord assistance fund. Landlords would be required to forgive 20% of past-due rent to access the assistance.

Still, lawmakers acknowledge that $100 million wouldn’t be close to meeting the needs of tenants and landlords. The Portland Housing Bureau estimated that Portland renters alone had missed over $120 million in rental payments by the end of September.

Deborah Imse, executive director for Multifamily NW, expressed concerns last month about the viability of the proposal if there wasn’t adequate funding to address the needs of landlords who would be asked to forgo rent for another six months.

In a letter to Brown earlier this month, Multifamily NW called on the state to allocate adequate rental assistance to make up for the losses of housing providers, create a short-term loan program for tenants who can’t pay rent and implement other relief measures for property owners, including property tax relief.

Multifamily NW is also supporting the passage of a separate proposal floated by Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, which would offer tax credits over a five-year period to landlords who forgive past-due rent. Landlords would be allowed to sell credits to other Oregon taxpayers.

“Rather than implementing additional confusing rules that further strain the relationship between housing providers and renters, Oregon should focus efforts on identifying budget resources to make rental assistance available,” said Michael Havlik, deputy executive director for Multifamily NW. “We think a combination of policies that improve emergency rental assistance programs coupled with tax relief measures is the right approach to resolving the state’s moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent.”

While Johnson’s proposal does not address the eviction moratorium, she said that landlords wouldn’t have an incentive to evict tenants with her proposal on the table because they would lose out on the opportunity to receive the tax credits.

“The landlord gets something in exchange for having provided services to the tenant without cost during the duration of the state of emergency,” Johnson said. “The tenant gets debt relief and peace of mind knowing there’s no obligation to pay back thousands of dollars of back rent or suffer having their credit destroyed or bankruptcy. Finally, the state is able to accomplish that by use of future as opposed to current revenues.”

Ron Garcia is president-elect of the Rental Housing Alliance, which represents smaller landlords. He said he is concerned Johnson’s proposed tax credits would benefit larger corporations and property management companies while doing little to help smaller landlords struggling now.

Fahey said her work group considered including tax credits in their proposal, but they felt that the credits would put a strain on the state budget down the road if they weren’t capped and they believed they could do more to help smaller landlords by getting them direct financial assistance now.

She said that Johnson’s proposal deserved consideration in the regular session, but that the state needs to address the expiring eviction ban before the end of the year.

Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, who owns several small rental properties, said it is imperative that legislators act to help both small and large landlords who have forgone rent for up to nine months and said he would consider both proposals on the table. But he also said he could only support a bill that also addressed the expiring eviction moratorium.

“I’m hoping everybody can envision the possible disaster if the moratorium isn’t extended and we can come together to find some way to get there,” Golden said.

Senate Democrats discussed options for renters during a caucus meeting Monday afternoon. Those discussions remained ongoing Tuesday morning. Still, the possibility of Brown calling a mid-month special session remained in doubt.

Shemia Fagan, D-Portland, who will be sworn in as Oregon’s next Secretary of State in January, said she delayed her resignation from the Senate in order to be available for a possible special session. She said Oregonians deserved to hear legislators debate the proposals publicly in a special session this month since any gap in the eviction moratorium and a separate foreclosure moratorium could have severe consequences for Oregon renters and homeowners.

“Oregonians facing eviction, foreclosures and possible homelessness deserve public leaders who will make a decision regarding housing during a global public health crisis,” Fagan said. “Those decisions should be made in public. People can vote how they want to vote, but Oregonians deserve a special session and a Senate caucus that will take a bill to the floor and have the courage in their convictions to vote yes or no on the Senate floor.”

 

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