Oregon lawmakers heard fervent public testimony Thursday night as they continued to refine proposals meant to help landlords and tenants, restaurants and school districts ahead of Monday’s one-day special session.
A legislative committee took three hours of input on three proposed bills during a virtual public hearing. The vast majority of it focused on a proposal to extend the state’s residential eviction moratorium until the end of June for renters facing financial hardships, allocate $150 million to a new compensation fund for landlords whose tenants have fallen behind on payments and dedicate an additional $50 million to existing rental relief programs.
Dozens of people shared their opinions on the bill before Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, cut off testimony after nearly two hours. Another 50 people are signed up to testify about the bill during a second committee meeting Saturday, but it is unclear whether lawmakers will be able to hear from everyone who wants to speak.
While some landlords and some tenants raised concerns about elements of the proposal, the majority of Oregonians who weighed in Thursday expressed their support for the bill.
North Portland resident Mike Grigsby-Lane said he has been doing everything he can to keep up with his rental payments since his husband died earlier this year after experiencing COVID-19-like symptoms.
Grigsby-Lane said he has been unable to work during the pandemic because he has pre-existing conditions that put him in the high-risk category for COVID-19. He said he blew through his savings and even sold personal belongings to keep up with his rent, but still fell several months behind on payments.
“I’m so grateful for state lawmakers and Gov. (Kate) Brown for taking up this cause of extending the eviction moratorium and providing rental assistance,” Grigsby-Lane said. “I would never have imagined myself in this position, but like many thousands of Oregonians, I am living in a new reality today. I have been working since I was 13 years old and have always believed in personal responsibility and hard work. I’ve never been in a situation like this, but COVID upended my world.”
But several tenants said they were concerned that the bill will put an added burden on renters to prove that they were experiencing financial hardships.
Unlike the sweeping eviction moratorium that lawmakers passed in June, the new proposal requires tenants to submit a declaration saying they have experienced financial hardship since the start of the pandemic to receive eviction protections. Tenants who don’t submit a declaration must repay any outstanding rent by the end of March. Multnomah County renters will have longer to repay outstanding rent. The county voted Thursday to extend its residential eviction ban until July 2 and give renters a six-month grace period after that date to pay back outstanding rent.
Conversely, a handful of landlords raised concerns about how the proposed legislation would impact property owners.
They said they worry regulations would prevent them from questioning a tenant’s hardship declaration and give tenants the right to sue for three months’ worth of rent. Some said they were concerned that the proposal would change existing law by requiring landlords to give tenants more time before initiating an eviction.
Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, with support from other landlords, called for her proposal to offer tax credits over a five-year period to landlords who forgive past-due rent to be added to the bill.
Violet Wilson, a property owner and landlord in Keizer, said she has seven tenants who owe a combined $30,000 in back rent and expects their debt to double in the next six months. She and other landlords expressed concerns about how quickly assistance would reach property owners and criticized a requirement in the bill that would mandate that landlords forgive 20% of rent owed to access assistance from the new compensation fund.
“I understand this is being done to stretch dollars, but we can’t do the same,” Wilson said.
The impending expiration of the eviction moratorium at the end of the year prompted lawmakers to call for a third special session next week.
The proposed legislation is one of four bills that lawmakers plan to consider Monday, along with proposals to offer coronavirus liability protections to schools, allow restaurants and bars to sell to-go cocktails and cap the delivery fees they pay to third-party platforms, and allocate $600 million to the Oregon Legislature’s Emergency Board for COVID-19 and wildfire relief and recovery efforts.
Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, has been pushing since the summer for lawmakers to allow sale of cocktails to-go. He said he worried that if the bill wasn’t passed, a greater portion of Oregon bars and restaurants would close for good in the coming months.
“The ability to serve a cocktail to-go is something Oregon can do on its own, by statute, and maybe help tide over at least some of these places until the pandemic is finally behind us,” Nosse said. “The profit in the restaurant industry is often made on selling alcoholic drinks.”
The cocktail to-go proposal didn’t receive any resistance Thursday, but a separate proposal in the same bill that would cap fees on third-party delivery platforms received intense pushback from representatives from Grubhub, DoorDash and other platforms.
A handful of cities and counties across the country have adopted fee caps on third-party delivery services during the pandemic, but few states have instituted similar legislation. New Jersey barred delivery companies from charging more than 20% of a total bill in June, while Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued a proclamation last month capping delivery fees at 15% and total fees at 18% of the purchase price.
Oregon’s bill would go further, capping fees at no more than 10% of the purchase price of a delivery order and no more than 5% of the purchase price of a pickup order. The city of Portland approved a similar cap in July, going further than other cities like Seattle, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, which had instituted 15% caps.
“When a cap is set so low that a third-party company like Grubhub can’t even offer a basic level of marketing support, you put thousands of restaurants across Oregon at a distinct competitive disadvantage with big national chains,” said Hannah Smith, a spokesman for Grubhub. “In other places where fee caps have been implemented, we’ve seen a clear effect of caps driving down how many customers and orders restaurants receive.”
Testimony also focused on a third bill that would temporarily protect school districts, charter schools and community colleges that follow COVID-19 public health guidance from being sued if students, staff or visitors contract the virus. The proposed bill would also shield school employees who disclose public health violations from retaliation.
Rep. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro, called on lawmakers to pass the legislation to protect school districts that have been unable to access liability insurance related to COVID-19.
“This policy does not prevent anyone from bringing forward a lawsuit,” Sollman said. “What this policy does will simply provide a safety net of protection to the entities that are involved that are in compliance with state guidelines. The policy provides an incentive to follow the guidelines and put safety first.”
Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, urged lawmakers to include similar liability protections for medical providers in the bill.
But Arthur Towers, a lobbyist for the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association, said the legislation was unnecessary because few such lawsuits had been brought against school districts and medical providers since the start of the pandemic. He said in some cases the threat of litigation may actually compel school districts and medical providers to adhere to more stringent safety precautions.
“Passage of this legislation limits the incentive to keep people safe,” Towers said.
— Jamie Goldberg | firstname.lastname@example.org | @jamiebgoldberg