Renters financially hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic would be safe from eviction for not paying rent until July, under a proposal lawmakers hope to bring to a special legislative session next month.
The proposal, which will get a hearing before the House Housing Committee on Monday morning, would extend the state’s current eviction moratorium, now scheduled to lapse on Dec. 31, and offer partial repayment to landlords who have had to forego rental income.
Officials say those steps are vital as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage through the state.
“We feel a real sense of urgency to act before the end of the year,” said state Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, who chairs the House Housing Committee and has played a leading role in working up the proposal along with landlord and tenant groups. “We cannot have the eviction moratorium expire at this point in the pandemic.”
The proposal unveiled Friday contains far more than a simple extension of the eviction moratorium — including a provision that will make it more difficult to receive protections.
According to a one-page summary circulated by House Speaker Tina Kotek’s office, renters who want immunity from evictions will be required to submit a sworn statement that they experienced financial hardship after March 16, when Gov. Kate Brown issued an emergency declaration tied to the pandemic. Valid reasons for hardship include medical bills, loss of income and increased childcare or eldercare responsibilities and costs.
The addition of a sworn statement is a notable change to Oregon’s current system of offering blanket protections to renters. It’s a move that landlords have been promoting for months but is likely to spur concerns tenants won’t be aware of how to protect themselves from eviction.
In addition, landlords who intend to pursue eviction due to nonpayment of rent would have to give renters 15 days’ notice, far more than currently required. Landlords would have increased options for evicting people without cause than have been allowed under the current eviction moratorium, including demolishing or converting their units.
For renters, the extended protections would come with a wrinkle — any back rent they owe would come due on July 1, 2021, just as the moratorium expires.
That’s a different tack than lawmakers took in June when they extended the eviction moratorium by three months; it was subsequently extended again by Gov. Kate Brown to Dec. 31. In that case, the Legislature gave renters six months to pay off back rent.
Fahey said the change reflects optimism that Oregonians’ lives will improve next year.
“The hope is by midyear next year folks will ... be back to work,” she said. “They’ll certainly be caught up on unemployment.”
Renters who don’t qualify for the eviction protections past Dec. 31 would still have until March 31, 2021, to pay off back rent. They would be responsible for paying the current rent as of Jan. 1.
The proposal would also allocate $100 million from the state’s general fund to assist renters and landlords. Fahey said it’s likely the bulk of that money would go into a new Landlord Compensation Fund to assist property owners hurting because of lost rent. The proposal would require landlords to apply for rent assistance online “on behalf of all of their tenants who owe rent payments.”
Priority for payments from the fund would be given to smaller landlords, and landlords with a “higher percentage of unpaid rent.” But the fund would help pay for past due rent only, and allow landlords to recoup only up to 80% of what’s owed to them.
Fahey acknowledged that provision would likely be unpopular with landlord groups, but noted that “there is no sector that has been made whole” by public aid during the pandemic. Limiting the amount of money landlords can recoup will help the state’s limited dollars go further, she said.
Fahey and a bipartisan group of other lawmakers have worked for months to create the proposal, she said. When they began in August, they assumed a new round of federal aid would fund their proposal. Last month, with that funding looking increasingly unlikely, they pivoted to a state-funded model.
Kotek, a Portland Democrat, previewed the proposal on Wednesday when she called on the governor to declare a “catastrophic emergency” due to the special session. That would allow Brown to convene legislators in a remote legislative session, rather than forcing them to travel to Salem at a time when virus cases are spiking and state health experts are warning against leaving home.
In her statement, Kotek said she was “particularly interested in seeing the state spend $100 million to keep Oregonians housed and stabilize the rental market as the pandemic continues into 2021.”
The summary released by Kotek’s office Friday once again pressed the case for such a session.
“The latest eviction moratorium is currently set to last through December 31, 2020,” it said. “The Legislature will not be in session until January 19, 2021, nearly three weeks later. If no action is taken before the end of the year, the result will be catastrophic for tenants. Additionally, many landlords are experiencing significant financial hardship due to lost rental income during the pandemic.”
Housing advocates are joining the call. In a joint statement, the Oregon Law Center and Oregon Housing Alliance called the housing proposal “a reasonable compromise that must move forward quickly.
“The situation is urgent and the solution is clear: A December special session so the legislature can act quickly and give people on the edge peace of mind,” the statement said. “While most Oregonians have managed to pay their rent on time during unprecedented job loss and upheaval in our communities, the strain is starting to show.”
Both the governor and Senate President Peter Courtney have signaled they are potentially open to a remote special session but plans to call one remained murky on Friday.