Person sitting in a cooling center
A sign for cooling centers at Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency on Saturday, June 26, 2021. (Photo by Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

By Alex Baumhardt, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon lawmakers Wednesday heard testimony on two bipartisan proposals that would help low-income homeowners and renters pay for air conditioning and heat and find relief in extreme weather.

The two bills respond to growing concerns that the June 2021 heat wave, where temperatures in parts of the state reached 118, could become more common.

At least 96 people died in Oregon during that heat wave, according to the ​​Oregon Medical Examiner’s Office.

Oriana Magnera, a policy coordinator at the Portland-based climate and energy non-profit Verde, opened the testimony with a reminder of that day.

“The heat dome is the second deadliest natural disaster in our state’s recorded history,” she said. “It is not a once in a lifetime event, it is likely the first of many more to come.”

The bills were heard in separate hearings by the House Environment & Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Committee on Housing & Development. 

House Bill 4058, the Emergency Heat Relief for Communities Act, would allocate $5 million to the Oregon Health Authority to distribute emergency air conditioners and air filters to low-income Oregonians on Medicaid and the state-subsidized Oregon Health Plan. It would allocate $10 million to the state Energy Department to help low-income households that typically rely on wood, oil and propane for heat to install new heating and cooling pumps.

Heating and cooling pumps are an alternative to furnaces and air conditioners, and are installed outside to move hot and cool air in and out of a home. They move heat energy in the air, rather than generating heat through the burning of fossil fuels.

Nearly 200,000 people in Oregon rely on oil, propane or wood-burning stoves for heating, or have no heating, according to the American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Senate Bill 1536, the Emergency Heat Relief for Renters Act, would guarantee renters the right to install portable air conditioners, allocate money to landlords to create cooling centers for tenants in their buildings and require cooling to be installed in newly constructed rental units or if major renovations are undertaken. 

About 80% of Oregonians have air conditioning where they live, according to the American Housing Survey, but there is no law requiring landlords to provide air conditioning for renters and they currently can prohibit renters from installing air conditioners at their own expense

The bill also allocates $15 million to the Energy Department to use as incentives to landlords for installing heating and cooling pumps. The bill also allocates $2 million to local governments and Tribes for establishing extreme weather shelters like cooling and warming centers.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.