Lawmakers face extensions of moratoriums on evictions, foreclosures
Extensions of Oregon's current moratoriums on residential evictions and foreclosures will be among the issues sharing center stage when lawmakers meet Monday, Dec. 21, for their third special session of the year.
But the proposals awaiting them will differ from straightforward extensions, which they passed June 26, of Gov. Kate Brown's executive orders during the coronavirus pandemic.
Both moratoriums, which began last spring, are scheduled to end Dec. 31.
The latest proposal for an extension of the evictions moratorium will be heard Thursday, Dec. 17, by the House Committee on Housing, ahead of the session.
While there are key differences from a draft the committee heard on Nov. 23, the basics are the same. For qualifying tenants, the moratorium will be extended until July 1, but only if they sign declarations that financial hardship resulting from the pandemic affects their ability to pay rent. For qualifying landlords willing to accept compensation at 80% of rents owed, they will have access to a state fund proposed at $150 million, and which could go higher.
Another $50 million is proposed for tenant-based rent assistance.
The latest proposal for an extension of the foreclosures moratorium would focus on residential and small properties, but exclude commercial property.
Although most Oregon renters are current on their payments, the Oregon Housing Alliance estimates that 18% of renters are facing difficulties. For Black Oregonians, it's one in three households; for seniors, one in four; and for families with children, one in five.
Among these Oregonians' stopgap measures to raise money: Using credit cards, digging into savings, taking out loans and selling personal possessions.
Between 20,000 and 40,000 households could be at risk of eviction.
Speaking for the alliance, Alison McIntosh said Brown's call for a special session was good news.
"All Oregonians — White, Black or Brown, rural or urban — need safety and stability for their families through the end of the school year," she said in a statement. "There needs to be rental assistance available for tenants and landlords to help."
Qualifying tenants will have to sign declarations — they are not affidavits, but violations will carry penalties — that link financial hardship to the loss of a job or working hours, the cost of care for children or other people in their households, or medical expenses. On July 1, they still will have to pay all rent due or face eviction.
Tenants who do not qualify for financial hardship will have until March 31 to pay back rent owed from April 1 through Dec. 31 of this year.
Exceptions from the ban on no-cause evictions are if the property is sold to someone who will occupy it, if it is demolished or converted, if the owner or a family member moves in, or if the property is deemed unsafe or about to be unsafe and requires major repairs.
As for the foreclosure moratorium, Rep. Paul Holvey said a work group he has led is proposing changes to focus on residential property. Holvey, a Democrat from Eugene, leads the House Business and Labor Committee.
Although Brown listed these two issues among several in her call for a special session, lawmakers are not limited to them. However, her list omitted other proposals being floated by House committees on a list that House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, released earlier this month.
"It is no secret that House Democrats have proposed a number of other urgently needed COVID relief bills," House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, said in a statement. "While I'm disappointed we won't be able to consider them all in this special session, we stand ready to pass these supports quickly during the 2021 legislative session."
Brown called the session based on her constitutional authority to do so. Lawmakers can call themselves into session, but they have done so only a few times since voters gave them that authority in 1976.
She and lawmakers had considered invoking a never-used constitutional provision, which voters approved in 2012, that would have allowed lawmakers to meet virtually under a "catastrophic disaster." But it comes with special requirements, including a limit on what lawmakers can take up, and the deadline has passed for it. The provision bars such a session within 30 days of the next regular session, which opens Jan. 11.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, had opposed a special session if it meant bringing lawmakers back into the Capitol. But he said Tuesday that question is moot.
"We're going in to help Oregon and her people," he said. "There's a lot to do ... tenants, landlords, schools, food security. We'll get it done."
The $200 million for landlord compensation and tenant assistance is part of $800 million Brown wants to draw from the budget for a variety of purposes. Brown spokeswoman Liz Merah was not specific, although she said much of the money will go to the Emergency Board, the 20-member group that decides budget matters between legislative sessions.
"This special session is intended to transfer resources to the Emergency Board to ensure that state agencies have the funds they need to respond to the immediate costs of COVID-19 and wildfires," she said in a statement.
"The governor's budget priorities are aid for tenants and landlords, funding for vaccine distribution and contact tracing, wildfire prevention and community preparedness, and support for reopening schools, including support for students in historically underserved communities."
Federal aid and wildfires
Brown also renewed her call for Congress to pass a follow-up coronavirus aid package to last spring's CARES Act, which resulted in $1.4 billion in aid to state coffers. Congress is still mired in a political dispute over the shape of the new plan, and additional aid to state and local governments may be consigned to a separate bill.
It was unclear whether lawmakers can act to provide money to continue unemployment benefits for 70,000 Oregonians after a Dec. 26 deadline. Most of them are on federally funded programs under the CARES Act that made them newly eligible for benefits. Oregon has a state trust fund, paid for through employer payroll taxes, for regular unemployment benefits.
Brown did specify that she wants lawmakers to get started on wildfire prevention and community preparedness, which she requested back on March 3. Her request for $25 million died two days later, when Republican walkouts over climate-change legislation compelled Democratic legislative leaders to adjourn the 2020 session.
On Sept. 17, during the Labor Day wildfire siege that blanketed much of Oregon, Brown told reporters:
"I will tell you that I expect the Legislature to take up these issues before the end of the year.
"We have to tackle how we ensure that our forest lands are responsibly managed through thinning, fuel reduction and prescribed fire. We have to make sure that our communities are better prepared in terms of evacuation plans, as we set forth in our legislation. We have to make sure we are fighting these fires with current methodologies, as opposed to systems that were put in place over 100 years ago."
NOTE: Adds statement by House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland.
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