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Renewed COVID-19 aid package is vital

Congress is racing to complete a second coronavirus relief bill before heading home for the August recess, despite huge differences between Senate and House proposals. If they reach an agreement, it can’t come too soon for strapped Oregonians who saw enhanced unemployment benefits expire at the end of July.

In a story today, Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous describes the “rent cliff” that looms when a state moratorium on evictions expires Sept. 30. The moratorium enacted by the Legislature in response to widespread layoffs from the coronavirus forbids landlords to evict tenants for nonpayment of rent.

While tenants cannot be evicted for nonpayment as long as the moratorium is in force, they still must pay back all the rent they owe by the end of next March. That’s why resuming the extra $600 a week in unemployment payments is crucial.

Democrats want rental and mortgage assistance money in the new aid bill, but Republicans did not include any in their proposal.

The parties are also at odds over renewing the extra $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits. Democrats want to extend it through the end of the year, but Senate Republicans proposed $200 a week through September and 70% of lost wages after that.

That’s a slap in the face to workers thrown off the job through no fault of their own, especially when lawmakers suggest continuing the extra benefits will keep Americans from going back to work because they are getting as much or more in benefits than they would on the job.

If jobs were widely available, that argument might hold water. But while some businesses have reopened since the depths of the shutdown, unemployment was 11.1% in June, still higher than any period since the Great Depression. There were 5.4 million job openings but 18 million unemployed Americans.

Locally, United Way is distributing $500,000 in county money to keep struggling households afloat. The county will reimburse itself from federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Landlords and property management companies report most tenants are doing everything they can to make rent and are managing to keep up. Nearly all of those who can’t pay their full rent are paying what they can and communicating with landlords and property managers about arrangements to make up the shortfall.

Despite the callous suggestion that unemployment recipients are freeloading, only a tiny fraction are refusing to pay rent even though they have the money.

If enhanced unemployment benefits and other federal assistance is not forthcoming, and too many employers are unable to reopen in time, the end of the eviction moratorium Oct. 1 could begin pushing people out of their homes, causing a spike in homelessness that no one wants to see.

Evictions are disruptive not just for tenants but for landlords, too, who face extra expenses including court costs, getting units ready for new tenants and lost income while units sit empty.

It’s in everyone’s interest to keep people in their homes with food on their tables while Oregon and the rest of the country struggle to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. Congress needs to step up and be part of that effort.