For thousands of Oregonians unable to pay their rent, the next four weeks will be crucial.

With a statewide eviction ban set to lapse on Dec. 31, many are wondering if they’ll get an eviction notice on New Year’s Day. Housing advocates are warning of a tsunami of evictions and homelessness.

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But the fate of the most prominent legislative proposal to forestall those evictions — and to ensure landlords are paid part of what they’re owed — is in question.

Senate Democrats are divided over a House proposal to extend the state’s eviction ban by an additional six months, warning outcomes could be dire for property owners. The disagreement could derail an unprecedented special session that legislative leaders and Gov. Kate Brown have discussed holding virtually at some point this month.

State Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, in the Oregon Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, in Salem, Ore.

State Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, in the Oregon Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, in Salem, Ore.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

“It seems unlikely at this point, just because you need to have the votes lined up,” said state Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland of holding a special session this month. “I hear a lot of concerns from people about: Is this [bill] ready for prime time?”

Burdick is one of the skeptics of the bill House Democrats have circulated in recent days. A landlord herself, Burdick said she worries over an eviction ban that has left property owners without options for regaining lost income they may rely on.

“I do get concerned about the overall impact of the housing market,” said Burdick, who noted that she has championed bills to limit evictions in the past, including legislation that extended the state’s eviction ban earlier this year. “If the tenants stop paying, [landlords] can’t pay their mortgage.”

Depending on just how fractious the issue becomes, just losing Burdick’s support could be enough to sink the bill— and perhaps a session.

Legislative officials on Friday were still looking at a constitutional provision Gov. Kate Brown would employ in order to allow lawmakers to meet remotely. At various points in the day, their offices offered varying takes on whether bills called under such a session would need three-fifths support or a simple majority vote in order to pass. Legislative Counsel Dexter Johnson did not respond to an inquiry on the matter. Democrats currently hold an 18-12 majority in the Senate, exactly three-fifths of the chamber’s members.

Whatever the case, Burdick isn’t the only Democrat with heartburn over extending an eviction moratorium. While House members have taken up their proposal in a legislative hearing and pushed it publicly, many senators say they haven’t been brought on board.

“The House tends to work on a lot of ideas that are dramatic, progressive and big and bold and then the Senate doesn’t really have much time to consider them,” said Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland. “And that leaves us in an awkward position.”

Steiner Hayward said she philosophically supports protecting people who lost their jobs due to COVID-19. Evicting people, she notes, would simply cause another kind of crisis. She also wants to ensure landlords, particularly those who manage smaller properties, are able to pay their bills.

But Steiner Hayward said she’s been dismayed with the lack of transparency around the eviction ban proposal that is being considered.

Under the proposal, Oregon’s eviction moratorium would extend by six months, to July 1. The state would create a fund to recoup up to 80% of rental income landlords have had to forego due to COVID-19, as long as they forgive renters’ debt. Backers concede that fund would not be large enough to cover all landlords. The bill would also require tenants to submit a sworn statement that they’ve experienced financial hardship in order to be protected from eviction.

Steiner Hayward said Thursday she had yet to see the details of the bill and feels uncomfortable supporting it without time to drill into the specifics. Special legislative sessions are often only called once the votes are counted and legislative leaders can be assured there is enough support for the measure to pass.

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“I want to see the bill, I want to read it. I want to point out unintended consequences and I want to ask questions so someone can point if I’m wrong,” Steiner Hayward said.

State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, in the Oregon Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, in Salem, Ore.

State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, is working up a proposal to offer landlords tax credits if they forgive unpaid rent.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, said the House’s proposal appears to be “a reasonable approach” that balances the needs of tenants and landlords. But Beyer hasn’t seen the bill either, he said, and worries other bills lawmakers have floated could complicate and draw the session out.

Beyer also pointed out a reality that could sap some urgency from a special session: the governor could unilaterally extend the eviction moratorium via executive order, as she’s done in the past.

“I think, quite frankly, if she were to extend it until say March and landlords challenged it, it would probably take them that long to get through the courts anyway and that would give the Legislature time to deal with it,” Beyer said.

At least one Democrat is pursuing an alternative to the proposal to extend the state’s eviction moratorium. State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, has been working up a bill that would offer landlords relief if they forgive renters’ overdue payments. That idea relies on credits landlords could receive against future income taxes, and has the backing of at least one major landlord group, Multifamily NW.

“This has to be equitable on both sides,” said Johnson, adding that her bill “comes closer than other proposals that have been offered.”

But Johnson’s proposal would not be taken up until next year, when lawmakers meet for a regular session that begins Jan. 19. Tenant advocates say Oregon could face a wave of evictions as of Jan. 1, if the current moratorium is allowed to lapse.

On Friday, those who support extending the eviction ban held a press conference to ratchet up pressure on lawmakers. The first person to speak was a Portland tenant named Mike Grigsby-Lane, who said his husband died in May, ending the household’s sole source of income.

“I sold everything I could think of,” Grigsby-Lane said. “I used savings. I used all of my retirement. I cut back on absolutely everything — medicine, food. I’m now a couple months behind, and I’m not sure what to do here.”

Grigsby-Lane and others in the call painted a dire picture of renters left without options by COVID-19, and said they would face a black mark of eviction on their records without an extension.

“I can get back on my feet,” Grigsby-Lane said. “But what I do know… is that COVID-19 is not going to magically end at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31.”

While Brown had sounded confident in the prospects for a special session in comments Tuesday, the governor said Friday she continues to meet with lawmakers about the idea.

“I want to see support, frankly, from Democrats and Republicans … and hopefully we will know in the next couple of days,” Brown said.

Republican Senators’ positions on an eviction extension weren’t clear Friday, though they had met to discuss the mechanics of a remote session, a caucus spokeswoman said.

Democratic senators are expected to meet next week to discuss the matter. When they do, they’re likely to hear strong support for a session from some in their ranks.

Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, who owns a couple of small rental properties himself, said Thursday that lawmakers must act swiftly to keep people in their homes.

“I wonder if people who don’t want to come in have really tried to picture what Oregon looks like in January and February if there is no extension of the moratorium,” Golden said. “Can you imagine the current status quo, except colder weather, likely more disease and significantly more people on the streets?”

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