Many things looked one way at the start of the summer, as COVID rates dropped and restrictions lifted, but are starting to look quite different as the Delta variant spreads across the U.S. Among them is the national eviction moratorium imposed by the CDC in September of 2020 and extended three times until July 31 of this year. Other than among directly affected parties, it didn’t get massive attention until June, when the U.S. Supreme Court (via the deciding vote in a 5-4 ruling, that of Justice Brett Kavanaugh) tersely gave the CDC just one more month to utilize an eviction moratorium authority it clearly considered illegitimate. With the Delta variant raging, it is reasonable to wonder if federal courts will now look differently on renewals of the eviction moratorium.
But time has already run out: With the moratorium due to expire this weekend, President Biden has called on Congress to supply the CDC with the clear legal authority the Supreme Court thought it lacked, at least for another month. As the New York Times reports, it came as something of a nasty surprise to members of Congress, who figured the administration would try to act on its own once again or would speed up disbursements of previously appropriated rental-relief funds:
The decision to ask Congress for help comes as the White House continues to struggle with a $47 billion rental relief program that has been plagued by delays, confusion and red tape. Just 600,000 tenants have been helped by the program, passed as part of two coronavirus relief packages in 2020 and 2021.
The request caught Democratic leadership by surprise. An attempt to pass an extension by a voice vote this week is expected to fail in the Senate, according to several people close to the situation.
The expiration of the moratorium will almost certainly lead to an increase in evictions across the country, with estimates ranging from 300,000 to more than a million families in the first month after the freeze ends.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who called the moratorium extension a “moral obligation,” is expected to rush a measure through the Rules Committee and the full House as quickly as she can. But to work, this maneuver would require acceptance by the Senate by unanimous consent, which seems very unlikely given the presence of COVID-19-response naysayers like Rand Paul and Ron Johnson.
Biden and his administration are not completely helpless. The president has already ordered the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, and Veterans Affairs to extend eviction (and for that matter, foreclosure) moratoriums on single-family homes they finance or insure until the end of September. And evictions take time to execute.
But assuming Congress won’t act and Biden won’t challenge the Supreme Court ruling further, the main protections against evictions for the time being may be at the state level. As CNBC reports, eviction moratoriums extending into August are in place in Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New York (with a demonstration of hardship), and Washington, D.C.; until the end of September in California (for tenants who pay at least one-fourth of their current rent); and until the end of the year in New Jersey. The above-mentioned federal rental-assistance program was supposed to relieve pressure on tenants by paying landlords back and current rent; and perhaps if evictions can be slowed down, federal funds can have a big impact. In California, for example, the state has announced a back-rent initiative that when fully implemented should satisfy both sides in landlord-tenant rent battles, as the Los Angeles Times reports:
California tenants will be protected from evictions for another three months, and those with low incomes will have all of their past-due rent paid by the state, under a bill signed Monday by Gov. Gavin Newsom in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“California will significantly increase cash assistance to low-income tenants and small landlords under the state’s $5.2 billion rent relief program, making it the largest and most comprehensive COVID rental protection and rent relief program of any state in the nation,” said a statement by Newsom’s office.
Nationally, though, federal, state, and local protections for renters and payments for landlords at best represent a patchwork with many holes at a time when rents are rising and rental housing inventory is lagging. Biden is going to take some grief for waiting this long to deal with the CDC moratorium and then issuing a panic-stricken plea to Congress for help at the eleventh hour. Those wanting action may have to grimly hope that if the pandemic does stage a comeback, so, too, will a sense of urgency about dealing with a surge in homelessness along with a surge in infections.