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Amendments would set dates, provide state help to landlords for rent owed by some tenants.

Day of of the June special session of the Oregon Legislature.Lawmakers are poised to extend Gov. Kate Brown's temporary halt to residential and commercial evictions.

A joint committee is expected to decide as early as today (Thursday, June 25) how much longer the moratoriums will last — they are scheduled to end Tuesday, June 30, without further action — whether they will be narrowed in scope, and if tenants will get a grace period to pay past-due rents.

The committee also will hear testimony on six bills focusing on police accountability in the aftermath of the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and subsequent protests in Portland and elsewhere.

House Bill 4213, which got a public hearing Wednesday, is one of the key bills pending during the special session of the Oregon Legislature to deal with the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and its economic effects.

As written, the bill would end the moratoriums 90 days after the governor terminated the state of emergency that empowered her to issue her original order on April 1. The state of emergency is still in effect. Once that period ends, tenants would have 90 days to pay all rent owed, and landlords could not serve eviction notices before then.

But some pending amendments would set specific dates — Sept. 30 for the end of the moratoriums, and March 31, 2021, for tenants to pay all rent owed — and would allow the state Department of Housing and Community Services to tap an assistance fund to pay landlords for rent owed by low-income people.

Testimony heard

"We do know that rent collections have been better than anticipated," Alison McIntosh, speaking for the Oregon Housing Alliance, told the committee Wednesday. "We think that is a real reflection on the sacrifices and choices people have been making every day."

The Fair Shot for All Coalition, which represents a range of groups, endorsed the timelines. It said in written testimony:

"The Legislature must enact a strong eviction moratorium, and include a repayment period to give people who rent their homes time to access rental assistance or receive their long-awaited unemployment insurance benefits, in order to repay any back rent. People with low incomes or people who have lost work due to COVID will not simply be able to repay all the back rent that is owed once the moratorium is lifted."

The Oregon Association of Realtors said its members do not oppose relief, but Brown's executive order (20-13) banned all evictions and allowed nonpayment of rents regardless of whether tenants lost income or jobs because of business shutdowns triggered by the pandemic and stay-at-home orders.

"House Bill 4213 prevents all landlord-based evictions in the state of Oregon for an extended period of time," Shaun Jillions, lobbyist for the association, told the committee. "The language does not limit the preemption to COVID-related financial difficulties, and in fact does not even limit the prohibition to the nonpayment of rent."

Some witnesses even called on the committee to reject all the proposals. Cliff Hockley, president of Bluestone and Hockley Real Estate Services of Portland, added this in written testimony:

"Extending the moratorium, without finding a source of funds to help tenants who cannot pay their rent or allow for proper negotiations of repayments, does not solve a problem and is more likely to destroy a portion of the housing market that is critical to all tenants, including low-income tenants."

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said legislators seek a middle ground.

"Particularly as our Employment Department still struggles to get benefits to people, we need to keep people housed and do the best we can to keep people stable in this pandemic," Kotek said.

Although some groups have called on lawmakers to pass a bill to forgive all unpaid rent, she added, "this is not the question under consideration."

No final action

Day One of the special session ended with a few bills advancing to votes of the House and Senate, but without immediate action. Counting some of the issues included in an omnibus bill — and others added at the last minute, such as allowing transit districts to divert part of their state-sanctioned payroll taxes for current operations instead of enhanced service — more than 30 topics are on the table.

Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat from Salem who counts 21 special sessions in his 36 years in the Legislature, said this special session poses unique challenges.

"We believe no legislative session in the history of Oregon has ever been asked to do so much in so little time," he told reporters Wednesday. "To be frank, some of these bills have not been vetted the way they should be. There is an uneasiness about that. But when you are in this kind of crisis, you've got to move."

But Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, expressed frustration by the Republican minorities in both chambers that only the Democratic legislative leaders are allowing amendments to legislation. He is a member of the joint committee hearing the bills.

"We are here to bring about some of the largest reforms in a generation, and yet there is no honest debate, collaboration or partnership," he said in a statement after Wednesday's meetings. "Our friends, neighbors and loved ones in our communities deserve a robust, honest, and earnest conversation."

The current session will not deal with budget issues, even though Oregon faces a projected shortfall of almost $3 billion in income taxes and other sources for its two-year budget. Brown said, and Kotek reaffirmed Wednesday, that lawmakers will consider potential spending cuts in a session toward the end of July.

"We are in better shape than many state governments," Kotek told reporters. "But we have a very significant budget deficit, and it would be helpful to know where the federal government is before we institute cuts for the second half" of the budget cycle starting July 1.

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