Housing advocates plan to push for further renter protections when the Legislature’s regular session begins next month
The Oregon State Legislature met in a special session Dec. 21 and extended the state’s eviction moratorium to June 30, despite concerns by Republican lawmakers about landlords’ bottom lines.
Yet state Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer (D-Portland) told her colleagues there is only one bottom line to consider with the original moratorium set to expire at the end of the month. “At the very heart of this bill is protecting people who are right now completely freaked out about the possibility of being evicted as of about Jan. 8,” she said.
House Bill 4401 passed 18-6 in the Senate and 40-14 in the House.
The bill extends the eviction moratorium until June 30 for renters who establish they can’t pay their rents because of economic hardships wrought by COVID-19. It also sets aside $150 million in state money to compensate landlords for up to 80% of unpaid rent and another $50 million for direct assistance to renters.
Asking landlords to forfeit 20% of back rent irked some Republican lawmakers. State Sen. Tim Knopp (R-Bend) said people didn’t have to lose their jobs and fall behind in their rents.
“That was a policy decision made by the government,” Knopp said. “This bill only covers part of the current problem in back rents to date, and we’re now saying we’re going to extend it for another six months. You could essentially double the problem, and if we have our small businesses continue to be shut down, it will actually, I think, increase.”
Knopp added that he understands the humanitarian goals of helping people faced with eviction. “What is much more humane, in terms of policy, is giving them their jobs back,” he said.
Shortly after the bill was passed, several landlords filed a suit against Gov. Kate Brown, Multnomah County and Portland over the extension, claiming the relief to landlords falls far short of the money owed, making the action tantamount to eminent domain.
State Rep. Julie Fahey (D-Eugene) squired rental and landlord assistance through the Legislature, chairing a work group that has been meeting weekly since July.
“These actions were necessary, short-term measures to protect lives and prevent harm,” said Fahey as she introduced House Bill 4401 on the floor of the House Dec. 21. “The closures and disruptions of this year have hit lower-income and BIPOC Oregonians especially hard. These are exactly the Oregonians who were already struggling with housing costs before the pandemic.”
Protecting renters protects everyone, Fahey said.
“We now have evidence that evictions increase the spread of COVID-19 as families lose access to a safe place to stay healthy and minimize their exposure to others,” she said. “Now more than ever, preventing evictions is an investment in the well-being of every Oregonian.”
Fahey added that 30% of Oregonians have little or no confidence in their ability to pay January rent, and two-thirds of them worry about being evicted in the next two months.
“We were already in the midst of a housing crisis before this pandemic, and as we stand here today, research and data shows that between 27,000 and 56,000 Oregonian households will be at risk of eviction on Jan. 1 if we don’t pass this bill,” she said.
Keny-Guyer said legislators are not robbing landlords of back rent. They must voluntarily apply for the state funds. “I do not see it as takings because it’s voluntary,” she said.
Lawmakers might also be able to offer landlords more money in the coming months, she added. “There’s nothing in the bill that prohibits the Legislature from trying to make up that 20%, whether it’s through tax credits or some other kind of program,” she said.
State Rep. Greg Smith (R-Heppner) said landlords would lose only 10% if they wrote off the loss under Oregon tax laws.
Several legislators said the state could offer more assistance to renters and landlords through federal stimulus legislation.
State Sen. Lee Beyer (D-Eugene) said Oregon stands to get 1.4% of the $25 billion in the federal stimulus bill set aside for rental assistance — amounting to $275 million. State Rep. Brian Clem (D-Salem) said he liked the idea of using part of the stimulus to help landlords. “We shouldn’t be off the hook for that 20%,” he said.
After threatening not to sign the federal stimulus package over the Christmas weekend, President Donald Trump eventually signed the $900 billion relief bill on Sunday, Dec. 27.
Beyer said the Oregon bill passed Dec. 21 addresses a specific and immediate need and buys time for both lawmakers and renters. “It’s not perfect by any sense of the thing,” he said. “Both many tenant groups and many landlord groups don’t like it, but I guess it’s our attempt to deal with that.”
Speaker of the House Tina Kotek (D-Portland) said she was pleased with the passage of the bill and the special session in general.
“State legislators showed up and did their jobs to help Oregonians who were facing tremendous risk in the month ahead because of some critical year-end deadlines,” Kotek said in a press release following the session.
“It was absolutely essential to extend the eviction moratorium and provide more funding to stabilize the rental market,” she said. “The moratorium worked to keep Oregonians housed during the worst public health crisis of our lifetime. Small landlords will also get an important lifeline.”
However, she expressed disappointment that lawmakers failed to extend foreclosure protections that expire at the end of the month.
“We need to do all we can to avoid the mistakes of the Great Recession and keep people housed,” said Kotek. “This means recognizing that income inequality has been magnified by the pandemic, especially for communities of color and low-income workers. We must act with urgency with one more Emergency Board before the start of the 2021 session next month.”
Kim McCarty, executive director of the Community Alliance of Tenants in Portland, told Street Roots she’s also pleased overall with the session, calling it “a big step toward stabilizing Oregon communities and protecting public health.”
“The passage of HB 4401 during Monday’s special session was definitely a victory for Oregon renters and the public health of everyone,” McCarty said. “CAT was proud and inspired by the renters who testified beforehand about the struggles they have faced and the need to extend the eviction moratorium.”
Although she said extending the eviction moratorium was a victory for renters, she added it’s only the beginning.
“We still have more that needs to be done to protect renters from harassment and deliver widespread relief,” McCarty said. “Communication with renters about their rights and resources is critical, and the courts need to think about the policies they can employ to make the negotiation of contracts between renters and owners more fair.”
Many landlords expressed anger toward legislators and Brown about the eviction moratorium during the past year. McCarty worries about what their anger might mean for tenants.
“We know that landlords are already finding a way around eviction moratoriums by using no-cause evictions or by suddenly finding legal grounds to evict,” she said.
“Even more are harassing tenants with the threat of eviction, which often pressures tenants into self-eviction,” she added. “BIPOC renters are especially at risk of harassment. This is why we need to end all evictions during this period and cancel rent and mortgage payments during this emergency period.”
When the Legislature meets for its regular session next month, McCarty said. the alliance will strongly urge lawmakers to consider more comprehensive measures, including a Cancel the Rent package. “The Cancel the Rent package envisions renters and low-income homeowners not only surviving this pandemic, but also thriving after the public health threat has been addressed,” she said.
Jimmy Jones, executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency in Salem, told Street Roots he also found the special session very positive. His agency is often charged with distributing state money to help people securing stable housing.
Extending the moratorium was crucial, Jones said. “I think a lot of people would have been on the dock.”
Still, he pondered whether or not asking landlords to sacrifice 20% of back rent in exchange for state assistance was a wise political move. “They’re the only ones specifically being asked to make a sacrifice,” he said. “A lot of them are already hurting.”
McCarty said she thinks lawmakers tried to be fair to landlords.
“I think HB 4401 was trying to offer something that was better for landlords than pursuing collections,” she said. “Also, the proposal was trying to stretch a limited general fund resource to benefit as many landlords and tenants as possible, not knowing if there would ever be any federal assistance.”
Jones also expressed concern about how legislators and people in general will respond if the ravages of COVID-19 extend beyond the summer. “One wonders what will happen come June or July if the economy hasn’t recovered,” he said. “We might go into next winter with similar conditions.”
However, Jones said one of his biggest concerns with the Legislature is that it seems to be forgetting Oregon’s homeless population.
Kotek called for the declaration of a state of emergency on homelessness in January, calling on lawmakers to approve $100 million to expand the state’s shelter capacity. She also advocated creating “navigation centers” in Eugene and Salem to offer low-barrier shelter, case-management and services to unsheltered people in a single facility.
Then, within a month, COVID-19 quickly hijacked all other agendas.
“Everyone is focused on eviction prevention,” Jones said. “That’s a noble thing and a good thing, but there hasn’t been much done for our existing homeless population. I’m curious what the Legislature is doing about actual homelessness.”
He likened the crisis to water in a bathtub. Lawmakers are trying to drain water from the tub, he said, but water is filling the tub faster than anyone can drain it. “Pretty soon, it’s going to overflow,” he said. “We’re not doing much to draw down the total number of homeless people. We’re going to be in a really bad place.”
The federal government has kicked in approximately $30 million to address homelessness in Oregon, Jones said. State resources boost the total to $70 million. “That seems like a lot of money, but the annual budget for the Salem-Keizer School District is $1.2 billion,” he said.
Jones said the problem boils down to sheltering versus housing. Efforts surrounding the former attempt to keep people in homes, in shelters and off the streets. True housing efforts require long-term solutions to end systemic houselessness and systemic housing insecurity, he said.
“It took us more than 20 years to get into this situation,” said Jones. “It will take us at least another 20 years to get out of it. This is a generational problem. No one is really taking this seriously.”
McCarty said addressing homelessness and protecting renters are not mutually exclusive, especially at the Capitol. “I do not know if the Legislature has one focus at the expense of another,” she said.
In addition to addressing the eviction moratorium, lawmakers also passed other bills in response to COVID-19 and the wildfires on Dec. 21, including:
House Bill 4402: Provides temporary liability protections to schools complying with COVID-19 emergency rules. This bill provides incentive for schools, administrators and teachers to follow health directives, and protects possible whistleblowers such as janitors, bus drivers, food servers and other service providers. The bill passed passed 20-4 in the Senate and 46-8 in the House.
Senate Bill 1801: Allows restaurants and bars temporarily to sell and deliver mixed drinks to-go if the mixed drink is sold in a sealed container. The bill passed 21-3 in the Senate and 50-4 in the House.
Senate Bill 5731: Provides $600 million to allow the state to continue to fund pandemic-related programs as well as more support for Oregonians affected by the wildfires. It also includes the money for House Bill 4401 — the $150 million for the landlord compensation fund and $50 million for rental assistance. The bill passed 24 votes in the Senate with no nay votes and 52-2 in the Senate.