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Plan eases restrictions on tenants, provides state money for heat pumps, portable cooling devices

Oregon lawmakers have passed a measure to ensure that future extreme heat waves, such as the one last summer that accounted for more than 100 deaths, will not have similar results.

Senate Bill 1536, which got final clearance Friday, March 4, would allow tenants to use portable cooling devices — defined as air conditioners and evaporative coolers, either mounted in a window or sitting on a floor — with some conditions and exceptions.

It also sets aside millions for the Oregon Department of Energy, Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Human Services to help pay for cooling systems, provide portable air conditioners and promote community shelters for cooling and heating.

The final votes were 22-3 in the Senate and 49-9 in the House.

It combines elements of a separate bill (HB 4058) that was considered Feb. 4 in the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. Chair Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, said lawmakers decided to merge them into one bill.

"Oregon has been a place where we didn't think we needed cooling devices. But conditions are changing — and rapidly," Marsh said.

"Protecting the health and safety of vulnerable residents now requires us to make sure they have access to both cooling and heating. We must do everything we can to make sure we never see the kind of suffering we saw in the summer of 2021."

The heat wave occurred June 26-29, 2021; the Legislature adjourned its regular session June 26.

Tenants would still face some restrictions. Among them: compliance with building codes, state and federal laws; compliance with written standards for device safety; no damage to the premises, and no power usage beyond what a building's electrical system can handle.

Tenants, not landlords, would be liable for injuries or damages caused by devices they install.

Rental units with construction permits after April 1, 2024, would be subject to new requirements for cooling in at least one room.

This provision prompted Rep. Kim Wallan, R-Medford, to vote against the bill. She said it would add to the already high cost of housing construction.

Proposed spending

The bill also sets aside these amounts in the state budget:

• For the Department of Energy, $15 million plus $6.6 million in other funds for grants to the governor's regional solutions teams and Oregon's federally recognized tribes for heat pumps and other devices. Another $10 million, plus $5.6 million in other funds, would go toward rebates to contractors for installation of residential heat pumps. About 25% of that money is for housing built for people who earn less than the area median income, and 25% for loans to housing owners whose tenants earn 80% or less of the area's median income.

Cooling centers would get $2 million, and a study of cooling needs in public housing. manufactured home parks and recreational vehicle parks would get $500,000.

• For the Oregon Health Authority, $5 million for distribution of portable air conditioners and air filters, with priority going to people who rely on state and federal medical assistance.

• For the Department of Human Services, $2 million for grants to organizations that run community shelters for cooling and warming.

These programs are separate from a five-year, $11.5 million program that the Portland City Council approved Dec. 1 to upgrade 15,000 homes and apartments, drawing from the Portland Clean Energy Fund that city voters approved in 2018.

But the state bill drew praise from Candace Avalos, executive director at Verde, an environmental justice nonprofit based in the Cully neighborhood of Northeast Portland.

"I applaud communities and lawmakers who came together and passed emergency heat relief to protect the health of Oregon's communities of color, renters, low-income folks, children, our elders and people with disabilities," she said.

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