The Oregon State Capitol. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)
In Salem, and the rest of Oregon, renters will keep roofs over their heads, landlords will have more cash coming in, schools will be less worried about lawsuits as they reopen and restaurants will have an easier time selling cocktails and meals.
Those are the results of a one-day special session on Monday where lawmakers passed four bills intended to throw a lifeline to renters, landlords, schools and the hospitality industry, all of which have faced unique challenges under the pandemic.
During the 10 hours of legislating, lawmakers directed $800 million for new landlord and tenant relief funding, as well as for contact tracing, vaccine distribution, help for those affected by wildfires and others. The legislation was passed overwhelmingly in both chambers.
But not everyone was content with the session’s outcome. Landlords will see less money and hospitals worry about liability, among others.
Also left out was help to the 70,000 Oregonians who are on track to lose federal unemployment benefits by the end of the month. Congress passed a relief package Tuesday extending those benefits. But outgoing President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the package.
After the session was gaveled to a close on Monday, Oregon legislative leaders indicated that pandemic relief will remain on their minds when they reconvene on January 19 for their regular session that will last until June.
Renters and landlords
House Bill 4401 extends the state’s moratorium of evictions of tenants who can’t pay rent through June 30, 2021.
The moratorium was first put in place through an executive order by Gov. Kate Brown in March as the pandemic struck Oregon. The idea behind the moratorium is to prevent tenants who’ve lost income because of the pandemic from losing their housing and having to crowd in with friends, relatives or shelters where the virus can easily spread.
Since then, it’s been extended multiple times during earlier special legislative sessions or executive orders and was set to expire by the end of the year.
U.S. Census Bureau data from this fall showed that 12% of Oregon tenants are behind on rent. According to research from the National Council of State Housing Agencies, as many as 56,000 Oregon households would have faced eviction when the moratorium ended.
“The moratorium has been working and extending it was the right thing to do,” House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said during a media call on Monday.
The moratorium still allows tenants to be evicted for damaging the property or other lease violations.
Lawmakers allocated an accompanying $50 million for rental assistance and a $150 million fund to help landlords cover overdue rent payments from April 2020 to June 2021. Landlords need to apply for the funds and agree to forgive 20% of unpaid rent.
The bill had the support of Community Alliance of Tenants. But multiple landlords submitted written testimony to the Legislature expressing their discomfort with taking a 20% cut.
“Why am I being asked to lose 20% of my rental income?” said Dennis Debolt, who owns four rentals in Salem, in a letter. “How is that fair to me as an owner that has worked so hard for what I have? A 20% reduction in monthly income is not a small amount of money for us.”
The Legislature also didn’t extend the residential foreclosure moratorium that’s set to expire at the end of the year. Kotek said that she hopes to take it up in next month’s regular session.
Bars and restaurants will be allowed to sell cocktails and cups of wine to go under Senate Bill 1801.
Under pandemic restrictions, bars and restaurants have been limited to takeout, delivery or outside dining.
In March, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission made it easier for restaurants and bars to offer pickup or delivery of beer, wine and cider to customers. The legislation will allow the commission to adopt temporary regulations that would allow bars and restaurants to sell mixed drinks and single servings of wine in secure containers.
During the pandemic, restaurants have complained of paying high fees to online ordering and delivery services like DoorDash or GrubHub. The legislation caps the fees these services can charge restaurants at 15% for delivery and 5% for in-person pick-up. This provision of the bill goes into effect upon passage.
Pandemic restrictions have been particularly hard on the state’s hospitality industry, which is bracing for a wave of closures of bars and restaurants. The Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association applauded the bill’s passage but said it’s not enough.
“These two acts will certainly help Oregon’s devastated restaurant industry, but we know more needs to be done,” Greg Astley, the association’s director of government affairs, said in a statement. “Oregon’s restaurants need additional financial relief from Congress and the State to make sure we survive.”
With the state seeking to reopen schools, the Legislature passed a bill that temporarily shields schools from Covid-related lawsuits.
House Bill 4402, which passed the House 46-8 and the Senate 20-4, blocks legal action against schools that are following public health guidelines. According to legislative documents, schools have been unable to obtain insurance for Covid-related liability.
It doesn’t protect schools from “reckless, wanton, or intentional misconduct.” School employees can still file for workers’ compensation and take legal action over discrimination.
“This bill is a needed first step to get schools reopened,” said Sen. Fred Girod, R-Lyons, in a statement. “Education for Oregon kids needs to be prioritized.”
The bill also provides whistleblower protection for employees who file complaints over schools not following pandemic regulations.
Arthur Towers, political director for the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association, said in an email that lawmakers turned down stronger whistleblower protections.
He also said schools in Covid-skeptical communities will be under “intense pressure” to reopen and decisions about safety will be left to local administrators and school boards.
The Oregon Hospital Association blasted the bill for not including health care providers.
“Oregon’s health care providers should not fear being sued while they comply with new guidelines issued in response to COVID-19,” Becky Hultberg, the association’s president and CEO, said in a statement.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said during a media call on Monday that striking the right balance on the bill was difficult with so many competing interests. He said he wishes the Legislature could have spent more time working on it.
“That piece of legislation, I’ll always think about,” he said.
Lawmakers also allocated $800 million to its Emergency Board, a panel of lawmakers empowered to make appropriations when the Legislature isn’t in session.
Senate Bill 5731, which passed the Senate 24-6 and House 52-2, directed $200 million to support the landlord and tenant relief legislation it passed during the special session.
The remainder of the money is designated broadly for pandemic relief and can be used by schools to help students falling behind, training to prepare for reopening schools, help paying people’s utility bills, contact tracing and help for people unable to access traditional unemployment programs. The money is also intended to help with wildfire prevention efforts and help for those affected by September's historic fires.
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Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.