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Bills give more time for renters to pay back rent and landlords to take tax credit for unpaid rent.

An Oregon Senate panel has heard the latest rounds in the debate between tenants and landlords.

Senate Bill 282, which the Senate Housing and Development Committee heard Thursday, March 4, would as amended give tenants eight more months — until Feb. 28, 2022 — to pay past-due rent . While the new version would not extend the current pandemic-related moratorium on evictions past June 30 — or forgive back rent — it would shield tenants' records to protect their ability to rent in the future.

Senate Bill 330, which the committee heard Tuesday, March 2, would allow landlords to take a tax credit — subtracted directly from income taxes owed — for unpaid rent.

The first bill drew more than 250 written comments; the second, more than 30.

Neither is likely to pass in its current form, despite impassioned testimony from tenants and housing advocates who say they need more time to make back payments as the economy slowly recovers, and landlords who say they need more money than the $150 million state compensation fund offers. A condition of accepting compensation from the fund is acceptance of a 20% reduction.

Oregon is in line for more federal dollars for housing assistance under President Joe Biden's pandemic recovery plan, which is pending in Congress.

Landlord arguments

"This week we have heard about two bills, each proposing solutions addressing the needs of tenants and housing providers," said Jason Miller, legislative director for the Oregon Rental Housing Association.

"We believe some concepts from both bills could work in harmony to resolve all the issues we face, but a one-sided approach will not work. We need collaboration between tenants and housing providers, Republicans and Democrats."

Christine Larson owns rental property in Clackamas County. She specified a couple of tenants who she felt had taken advantage of the evictions moratorium to evade paying rent.

"Some of us are already selling rentals in a hot real estate market to get out of providing housing. How can we be expected to continue the cycle of no evictions as well as no payments another year?" she asked. "Please try to aid those providing housing, not continue to pass laws that take away more landlords' rights."

Landlords, predictably, like the tax credit bill — although lawmakers have been leery of creating new credits that reduce future tax collections — and dislike the other bill.

"Landlords are unduly burdened by this bill and are having trouble meeting mortgage, tax, payroll and other expenses," said Rajiv Jain, chief executive officer of Hawthorne Villa Apartments in Tigard. "Residents need help paying past due rent through government assistance provided by SB 330."

Tenant arguments

But Erin Meechan of Gresham said tenants like her are asking for time, not a handout.

"With dim prospects for recovering lost income, renting Oregonians who fell behind through no fault of our own are going to need more time to stabilize our families," she said in testimony sponsored by the Stable Homes for Oregon Families coalition.

"As nearly a half a billion dollars of state and federal tenant and landlord assistance are being distributed, we must ensure that people have time to access assistance, they aren't unfairly evicted after the moratorium ends, and that a temporary setback during COVID doesn't make it impossible for us to rent in the future.

Heather Stuart, speaking for the Fair Shot for All coalition, said about one-third of renting Oregonians already were paying more than 30% of their incomes toward rent. The 30% standard is set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as "affordable housing."

According to a Household Pulse online survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, Stuart said, most renters are trying to keep current with rent although many are falling behind.

"This Pulse survey shows that Oregonians are going to great lengths to pay their rent — even during the moratorium — using savings, making sacrifices, borrowing money. We know this is how the cycle of homelessness and poverty is sustained," she said.

"An eviction or a late payment can make it almost impossible for renters to access housing. If we don't act now, the COVID pandemic will produce another generation of health and wealth gaps for our communities."

Among other provisions of a revised Senate Bill 282, it would bar potential landlords from screening out applicants based on COVID-era evictions and allow sealing of evictions during COVID from a tenant's record. It also would prohibit credit history reports on any late payments during the moratorium, and prohibit landlords from screening out tenants based on nonpayment during the eviction moratorium and grace period.

Russell Wisniewski, a small landlord in Portland's Gateway District — he rents out his basement as an accessory dwelling unit — was one of the few landlords to speak in favor of the proposed revision of Senate Bill 282.

"As we move into the next stage of the COVID pandemic, we must acknowledge the ongoing difficulty that continues to face our most vulnerable communities," he said. "We must act to ensure that the fallout from the COVID pandemic does not sentence Oregonians who rent their homes to lasting collateral consequences."

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