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Special session needed to address rental crisis

Gov. Kate Brown’s decision to call a special session of the Legislature next week is the right call under the circumstances. If it can be limited to the immediate need to prevent evictions while protecting landlords as well as tenants, it should be time well spent.

Oregon has received $289 million in federal money to help struggling tenants pay rent during the pandemic. All of that money has been applied for, but the state Department of Housing and Community Services is behind on issuing checks.

The result is that many renters now face eviction even though they have applied for relief because the checks have not been issued.

The special session Dec. 13 is intended to fix that problem by extending the moratorium on evictions until checks are issued. At the same time, the governor has asked lawmakers to make sure landlords are guaranteed payment of the rent they are owed.

In addition, the governor wants the Legislature to approve $90 million in additional rental assistance and $100 million to set up long-term eviction prevention at the local level.

That is especially crucial at this local level, because the devastating Almeda fire last year destroyed a large number of affordable rental units, making an already overloaded rental market even worse.

Support for the special session is widespread among housing advocates, although it is not shared by everyone. Some rental owner groups are dubious, and some are taking a wait-and-see stance.

Minority Republicans have questioned the need for a special session, arguing the Legislative Emergency Board has the power to appropriate money when needed between regular sessions. While that’s true, the immediate problem here isn’t a lack of money but the inability of a state agency to process applications fast enough. The Emergency Board does not have the power to extend the eviction moratorium on its own.

Cost is not a major consideration either. The state has enough money to meet the governor’s request for additional rental relief funding.

Ultimately, the present housing crisis will begin to ease once new housing and remodeled motel units come on line. Those efforts should be encouraged.

In the meantime, it’s vital to keep existing tenants in their rentals rather than let them be forced out, which would add to the homeless population just as winter begins.