PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — A pair of measures stemming from last summer’s extreme heat waves, which claimed more than 100 lives in Oregon, are making their way through the short session of the Oregon Legislature. 

Based on amended versions pending before Senate and House committees, which heard the original measures Feb. 2, here is what they propose: 

Senate Bill 1536 would require landlords to allow tenants to use portable cooling devices — defined as air conditioners and evaporative coolers, either mounted in a window or sitting on a floor — with some exceptions. Among them: Violations of building codes, state and federal laws; noncompliance with written standards for device safety; damage to premises, and power usage beyond what a building’s electrical system can handle. 

Tenants, not landlords, would be liable for injuries or damages caused by devices they install. 

New construction or rehabilitation would be subject to cooling requirements. 

House Bill 4058 would build on but is separate from the Healthy Homes fund, which legislators seeded with $10 million last year for the Oregon Health Authority to pay for home repairs in low-income and minority communities. The new emphasis would be on air conditioners and air filters for people who require state or federal medical assistance.

Both come with price tags, which means the bills will have to go to the Legislature’s joint budget committee for clearance. 

SB 1536 proposes $15 million for the Oregon Department of Energy to pay for heat pumps, $500,000 for the agency to help landlords set up cooling centers, $500,000 for the agency to survey cooling needs in public housing, manufactured housing and recreational vehicle parks, and $2 million for the Oregon Department of Human Services to award grants for emergency cooling shelters. 

HB 4058 proposes $5 million for the Oregon Health Authority or third parties to obtain air conditioners and air filters, and $10 million for the Oregon Department of Energy to pay for heat pumps. 

These programs would be separate from a five-year, $11.5 million program that the Portland City Council approved Dec. 1 to upgrade 15,000 homes and apartments, drawing from the Portland Clean Energy Fund that city voters approved in 2018. 

Most of the more than 100 deaths occurred in Multnomah County during the heat surge June 25-29, according to the state medical examiner, but they happened across many communities.

Panels poised to act

The Senate Committee on Housing and Development has scheduled a work session on the bill for Thursday, Feb. 9. The House Environment and Natural Resources Committee has scheduled a work session on HB 4058 on Tuesday, Feb. 7. During work sessions, committees consider amendments and can take action, in this case, to the budget committee. 

Of around three dozen comments submitted to the Senate committee, and 50 to the House committee, virtually all of them favored the original versions of the bills. Among them were officials from Portland, Gresham and the Metropolitan Mayors Consortium, which represents about two dozen mayors in the three metro area counties. Multnomah County endorsed HB 4058, and Beaverton, SB 1536. Consumer, climate-change and environmental advocates also weighed in for them. 

“As we ready our state for the possibility of another devastating summer heat wave, legislators have a responsibility to act swiftly and provide Oregon renters with a right to cooling,” Kim McCarty, executive director of the Community Alliance of Tenants, said in a statement to the Senate committee. 

Portland General Electric and Pacific Power, which together serve more than 70% of Oregon’s utility customers, are among the utilities that support HB 4058. A statement submitted by Brooke Brownlee on behalf of the utilities, which includes NW Natural, said this: 

“In conjunction with other energy-burden mitigation measures currently under examination at the Public Utility Commission … the use of more energy-efficient heating and cooling options can improve access to lifesaving technologies and reduce energy burden by saving renters and homeowners money on their utility bills.” 

Some opposition

But Matt Solak, executive director of the Pacific Propane Gas Association, weighed in against HB 4058. He said it would tilt toward heat pumps at the expense of his industry. 

“We believe customers have the right to install any heating or cooling system of their choice, but that decision and the costs associated with that decision should be primarily left to the customer,” he said in a statement to the House committee. “We also believe that the cooling goals of this legislation can be accomplished without the heat pump deployment program which would have devastating impacts to Oregon’s family-owned propane businesses.” 

Donna Bleiler of Salem, coordinator for the Oregon Abigail Adams Project, was the other witness to file a statement opposing HB 4058. She said people died in the extreme heat mostly because they did not know where to turn for help. 

“This bill does nothing to improve communication to get available resources to them,” she said. “This program will just make some manufacturers rich at the expense of taxpayers to provide people with upgrades to whatever they (plan) on using for cooling their homes.”

Portland Tribune and KOIN 6 News are media partners.