PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — With the state and federal eviction moratorium set to expire at the end of June, Oregon lawmakers are hastily working on an amendment to keep financially struggling tenants housed and avoid mass evictions next month.
The proposed “Safe Harbor” amendment on Senate Bill 278 would “pause” rental evictions for 60 days for tenants unable to pay their July or August rent, if they provide proof to their landlord that they’ve applied for rental assistance through Oregon Housing and Community Services.
“We have had this unequal recession and unequal recovery, and there is still a subset of folks that need a little extra time and help," Rep. Julie Fahey, a Eugene Democrat, said during a committee meeting on Monday. “And we have resources, in a magnitude that we have never seen before, to help those folks.”
Oregon has had an eviction moratorium in place since April 2020. In addition, last month Oregon lawmakers voted to extend the grace period for past due rent during the moratorium, allowing tenants to have until Feb. 28, 2022 to pay back rent.
But a year into the pandemic people are still facing financial hardships.
In May, 53% of Oregon renters who responded to a survey — or more than 27,000 renters — said that it was “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that they would be evicted from their home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent Household Pulse Survey.
Last week Gov. Kate Brown announced she was extending the state's mortgage foreclosure moratorium until the end of September. But she said she did not have the authority to extend the eviction moratorium.
"That means, by law, Oregon's eviction moratorium will expire on June 30," Brown said.
However with many tenants still struggling lawmakers are discussing the “safe harbor” amendment, which would not extend the eviction moratorium but would keep people who have applied for rental assistance from getting evicted on July 1.
“It’s certainly a step down from a true moratorium, in terms of how protective it is, because a tenant has to apply for rent assistance,” Fahey said. “But in my mind it will encourage more folks to apply for rent assistance – and it will keep people housed."
The state currently has $200 million, in federal aid, in the state's rental assistance fund to help both tenants and landlords. Another round of funding is expected to be available this fall.
So far, officials from the Oregon Housing and Community Services said more than 16,600 households have started or completed the application to get rental assistance.
While there is a great need for rental assistance, state officials say the problem is they can’t get it out fast enough.
“The Legislature's great work on the (eviction moratorium) was designed based on the reasonable assumption that federal rent assistance dollars would be in distribution in communities across the state by now, but that hasn’t happened,” said Sybil Hebb, the director of legislative advocacy at the Oregon Law Center. "We know now that rent assistance dollars cannot be processed quickly enough to prevent evictions after the expiration of the moratorium."
Along with unprecedented levels of applications for rental assistance statewide, officials say there was a lack of direction from the federal government — which only published guidance on how to use the federal funds on May 7.
“It wasn’t a dereliction of the state,” said House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, a Portland Democrat.
The proposed amendment has been criticized by landlord associations.
“We have all suffered under the pandemic," Charles DeSeranno, a property owner and vice president of the Salem Rental Housing Association, said in written testimony. "And though we were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, as of late per the governor, it would appear that was not the case as this bill just kicks the can down the road once again for a select group of citizen’s of this state.”
Landlords argued that they have already made “enough compromises” when it comes to rent during the pandemic — in the form of the moratorium and grace period to pay back rent.
“Oregon is almost all the way back open and there are more jobs than ever for people to obtain. On top of that, those that have been on unemployment have been receiving additional monies each week to help them get back or stay on their feet,” Michelle Bunting, the president of a property management company in Bend, said in written testimony.
In addition, House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, a Canby Republican, expressed that she felt it was an extension of the state’s eviction moratorium.
“I find this to be a complete and total overreach,” Drazan said.
Sara Cline is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local news