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Tenants would certify hardship; landlords could tap state fund under pending bill.

Oregon's temporary halt to residential evictions, which has been in effect since spring, would continue to July 1 under a new proposal heard by a House committee on Monday, Nov. 23.

But unlike previous orders issued by Gov. Kate Brown and a law passed by the June special session of the Oregon Legislature during the coronavirus pandemic, the extension differs in a couple of ways.

The proposed bill would require tenants to certify their financial hardship resulting in their inability to pay rent, either because of a loss of household income, higher medical costs or greater expenses in caring for a child or someone else for whom they have responsibility. Certifications would be in the form of declarations subject to perjury charges.

It also would set up a fund that would enable landlords to get 80% of the back rent they are owed if they agree to forgo the other 20%. Money for the fund is a separate issue.

Rep. Julie Fahey, who leads the House Committee on Housing, said a group has been working on a longer-term relief plan since summer in anticipation of congressional approval of a follow-up federal aid plan to the CARES Act in March. But that aid has been stalled by political disputes.

"I believe we cannot afford to wait any longer," Fahey, a Democrat from Eugene, said at the hearing.

"Both aspects of this proposal … work together to make sure we can keep people housed during the pandemic, tenants are not carrying unsustainable levels of rental debt and landlords can be compensated for their unpaid rent."

Fahey, in response to a lawmaker's question, said the July 1 date came about as a result of a desire to keep families stable through the rest of the 2020-21 school year.

Committee members are preparing it for action at a potential special session of the full Legislature in December.

Leaders are divided over how the session would take place, but only lawmakers themselves can extend the moratorium. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, also wants lawmakers to draw $100 million from budget reserves to provide money for housing aid to tenants and landlords.

There are no firm estimates, but most tenants — 85% to 87% — have been able to stay current on rents.

Loren Naldoza, speaking for the Oregon Housing Alliance, said one in four Oregonians are getting money for rent by using credit cards, digging into savings, taking out loans or selling personal items — or a combination.

"A continuation of the eviction moratorium, especially for Oregonians most impacted by this pandemic, is needed now more than ever," said Naldoza, whose alliance has 90 member groups.

The current moratorium, under Brown's latest order, ends Dec. 31. (Multnomah County has a separate deadline of Jan. 8.) Though the legislation on the books gives tenants until March 31 to pay some of their back rent, tenants also can be subject to eviction proceedings after Jan. 1 if they fail to pay rent for October, November, December and January.

Fear of eviction

Mike Grigsby-Lane of Portland, 49, says his future depends on passage of the proposal. Without it, he is facing eviction in January and is out of options. His husband died in May and Grigsby-Lane has been unable to work during the pandemic due to pre-existing health conditions, leaving him with no income and unable to pay rent for the past few months.

"I have worked since I turned 13 years old and have never been afraid I couldn't support myself," he said in a statement issued separate from the hearing. "But now I am absolutely terrified I will end up living in the back of a van, which is something I never would have imagined before."

Previous executive orders and legislation have not required tenants to certify financial hardship. The declarations that tenants would have to sign to qualify for a continuation of the moratorium protections through June 30 are subject to penalties for perjury, currently a Class C felony with maximums of five years in prison and a $125,000 fine.

Small landlords — those with few rental properties — and landlords with disproportionate shares of tenants owing back rent would get priority in the new state relief fund.

The fund would be administered by the Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services and local housing authorities, which exist in all three Portland metro area counties. Landlords who agree to take part — the program is voluntary — would forgo 20% of back rent but submit a single application for all of their eligible tenants. Tenants from a landlord's immediate family are ineligible for inclusion.

Sybil Hebb, director of advocacy for the Oregon Law Center, said the work group that drew up the legislation got advice from states such as Washington and Colorado. She said they learned to set up a program that does not try to anticipate every problem.

"We heard from them that simplicity is the key to success," she said. "For administrative barriers, the more you can reduce them, the better, because you want dollars to get out to the needy folks as quickly as possible."

Rep. Jack Zika of Redmond, the committee's top Republican, said the proposed $100 million for the fund "is a drop in the bucket." He anticipates that it will cost much more, although other lawmakers said federal money from a new coronavirus relief plan could be used to replenish the fund.

Rep. Mark Meek, D-Oregon City, said landlords were ineligible for relief under federal and state programs. "We cannot keep putting the burden on them" to provide housing without help, he said.

Still dissatisfied

Although the work group that devised the draft included advocates for tenants and landlords, there were some on each side who remain dissatisfied.

Katrina Holland is executive director of JOIN, an organization based in Portland that seeks to match people without permanent shelter with housing. She said landlords have options to recoup their losses — including the sale of rental properties — but tenants do not.

"On one side of the scale, we have owners who may be financially struggling and are, but ultimately have a way out to make themselves economically whole," she said. "The bottom line is that they have an option. It's still there.

"Renters threatened with homelessness have no option. On their side of the scale, they face eviction on their rental history, negative future landlord references, limited social service options for rent assistance, bankruptcy — and ultimately, the streets."

Jenny Lee, deputy director of the Coalition of Communities of Color, said the pandemic has affected people of color far more — and that a lack of stable housing will make it worse.

"We risk exacerbating the public health crisis that we are trying to fight right now," she said.

On the other side, executive director Jason Miller and president Sage Coleman of the Oregon Rental Housing Association quoted messages from some of their 5,000 members criticizing lawmakers for ignoring their plight. Both urged lawmakers to allow landlords to take tax credits, which are subtracted directly from income taxes owed, for the balance of their lost rental income if they apply for help from the new state fund. Such action also would fall to lawmakers, although the draft legislation does not propose it.

"Letting housing providers fail would be a disaster," Miller said.

"We are opposed to a blanket extension of the moratorium for all tenants. Some tenants have taken advantage of the moratorium."

But Miller and Coleman also specified that their organization took part in the work group that came up with the recommendation for a relief fund.

"By doing that, it takes the economic brunt off this small subgroup of property owners and shifts it to the broad taxpayer base," said Brian Cox, a lawyer from Eugene who has represented both tenants and landlords.

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Link to Oregon House Committee on Housing:

https://olis.oregonlegislature.gov/liz/2019I1/Committees/HHOUS/2020-11-23-10-00/Agenda


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