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The Oregon Legislature has advanced a bill that would lessen the expected impact of the looming June 30 termination of the statewide COVID-19 eviction moratorium.

Currently, Oregonians who've been unable to pay rent due to the pandemic's financial toll are required to pay back any missed rent payments on July 1, the day after the moratorium lifts. Senate Bill 282, introduced by Portland Senator Kayse Jama, expands the grace period to repay skipped rent until February 28, 2022.

Eugene Representative Julie Fahey introduced the bill on the House floor Tuesday, where she described the legislation as a "compromise bill," acknowledging that it had the support of both landlord and tenant groups. While she underscored the fact that the bill does not extend the current eviction moratorium, Fahey said that this delay would allow more time for expected federal aid to reach Oregon renters.

"By passing this bill, we can ensure that Oregon tenants and landlords can get the full benefit of rental assistance coming to our state and help prevent the fallout from the pandemic following the most vulnerable Oregonians for years to come," Fahey said.

Oregon is in line to receive $222.5 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act for emergency rental assistance, but it's not yet clear when the state and other jurisdictions will see the funds.

The bill includes a few other protections for Oregon tenants impacted by the pandemic. Specifically, SB 282 bars landlords from rejecting rental applications due to a prospective tenant not paying rent or being evicted during the COVID pandemic. It also prevents a tenant's credit score from being impacted by non-payment of rent during the pandemic and prevents landlords from evicting tenants for allowing guests to stay in their home due to COVID or wildfire-related hardships.

Leeor Schweitzer, an organizer with Portland Tenants United, said that the passage of these tenant protections would be considered "remarkable" progress during a normal legislative session.

"But, in the context of the crisis that we're in, [SB 282] is really just scratching the surface," said Schweitzer. "The pandemic isn't over, the amount of people out of work is still huge, and starting July 1, people have to pay their rent. This gives people more time to figure out their rent debt that goes through the end of June, but the tools to get rental assistance right now are not sufficient."

Schweitzer pointed to Oregon's landlord compensation fund, a $150 million program created in December 2020 that pays landlords up to 80 percent of all rent they've lost through tenant nonpayment since April 1, 2020—as long as those landlords agree to forgive tenants for the remaining 20 percent.

"A lot of landlords are not willing to do that," said Schweitzer. "And if a landlord doesn't want to use the compensation fund, there's nothing a tenant can do about it."

The state legislature also set aside $40 million in December to be used to support tenants who've fallen behind on rent payments. Yet those dollars, mostly distributed through community organizations, are still taking a while to reach tenants.

"It's very easy and very clear to see that SB 282 does not do enough," Schweitzer said."Even lawmakers agree. The state is essentially trying to buy time for themselves to get federal funding funneled through to get rental assistance."

According to a fall 2020 survey of 460 Oregon renters, conducted by Community Alliance of Tenants (CAT) and Portland State University (PSU), 35 percent of renters had missed rent payments during the pandemic and had yet to repay. The same survey found that more than half of renters have cut back on food and medication costs to afford rent during the pandemic.

For CAT Director Kim McCarty, that data indicates that many Oregonians will still be in debt by the end of the June moratorium.

"What we know is that most people, regardless of whether or not they have a job, are still paying rent," said McCarty. "But maybe [they] are borrowing that money from their friends or putting it on a credit card. After a year of COVID-related hardships, many people are in debt."

That debt pushes tenants further into financial instability over time, McCarty said. That's why CAT and the tenants its membership represents want to see the statewide moratorium extended at least a year further. Like lawmakers' decision to extend the repayment period, McCarty said extending the moratorium would give state and federal agencies more time to reach renters who are in the most need of financial support and disperse new federal dollars.

"If we gave ourselves the time to do this right, it sounds like the most sensible plan," said McCarty. "If we don't, it's going to be incumbent on our state to create some really serious safety nets for vulnerable tenants facing eviction."

Regardless of what the state choses to do, McCarty said, it's not going to be cheap.

In February, a study from PSU's Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative estimated that it would cost the public $3.3 billion to respond to the expected surge in evictions that will come once the state's moratorium lifts—and tenants are still unable to repay missed or future rent bills. A report from the National Council of State Housing Finance Agencies found that Oregon tenants collectively owed between $249 million and $378 million in unpaid rent as of January 2021.

Both McCarty and Schweitzer said they've heard from numerous renters who've been harassed by their landlords after skipped payments during the pandemic. Since landlords are barred from evicting people without cause under the eviction moratorium, renters who have delayed rent payments have reported targeted harassment—whether that's constant construction surrounding the rental unit, a dismissal of a maintenance request, enforcement of new and unrealistic rules, or verbal bullying—from landlords during the moratorium. These forms of harassment have been captured in a survey by PTU published last month.

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PTU has been encouraging Portland City Council to adopt an ordinance that would safeguard tenants from this form of retaliation and other harms inflicted by landlords for the past year. Schweitzer said the current crisis should be enough to illustrate to city commissioners how badly these protections are needed.

"We have an urgent need for more resources to support tenants," he said.

SB 282 offers a step in the right direction, according to Schweitzer. With the Tuesday passage in the Oregon House, the bill now heads to Gov. Kate Brown's desk for final approval.