FILE — Oregon state capitol building

A view of the Oregon state capitol building in Salem, Oregon on February 25, 2021. The building has been closed to the general public since March of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

(The Center Square) – Commercial tenants in Oregon now have until September to catch up on back rent under a bill passed by the Oregon Senate.

Gov. Kate Brown signed her original 90-day moratorium on commercial evictions for non-payment on April 1, 2020. Later that summer, state lawmakers extended that moratorium through September 30, 2020, which included a grace period that went through March 31, 2021.

Under House Bill 2966, businesses would be granted retroactive protections for the two-month lapse in the state legislature's prior moratorium. It's unclear whether companies faced lawsuits for failure to pay in that period.

"We conclude that the answer is that landlords likely could have sued commercial tenants during the emergency and grace periods," legislative analysts wrote in their report. "However, we acknowledge that that answer is not without doubt."

HB 2966 passed the House in April and the Senate on Wednesday. It awaits final approval in each chamber before sponsors can send it to Brown's desk.

The state legislature has passed a host of housing bills this session, including a retroactive extension for mortgages in forbearance and one bill allowing cities to "upzone" their land codes to help close the state's housing deficit.

How much back rent has piled up in Oregon since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic is anyone's guess. Estimates over the past year vary from source to source, but the figure most experts report is in the hundreds of millions. Last fall, Brown's office reported that back rent in the state—commercial and residential—stood at $325 million.

In Multnomah County, back rent could be between $72 million and $500 million, according to economist John Tapogna, president of the ECONorthwest consulting firm. Last month, Tapgona testified to the Portland City Council that back rent in the county could range from $72 million to $242 million. In May, the Portland Housing Bureau reported that up to 90,000 Multnomah households could owe up to $500 million in back rent.

Those numbers do not take into account the millions in state and federal aid paid out over the past year. Around $391 million in funds have gone to renter's assistance in Oregon. In December, the state legislature created the Landlord Compensation Fund, which was bolstered by $150 million in federal money. Officials are to disclose the total number of applications for the program later this fall. 

The Oregon House Committee on Housing will hold an informational hearing on rental assistance funding on Friday.