The Biden administration on Tuesday buckled to pressure from liberal House Democrats and announced a limited moratorium on evictions as landlords and tenants flooded courts across the country after a comprehensive federal ban expired over the weekend.
The action will be targeted to areas of the U.S. with the highest rates of COVID-19 infections, covering 80% of the nation’s counties and 90% percent of the population.
The moratorium will last for 60 days, expiring on Oct. 3, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
Tensions between the Biden administration and House Democrats escalated over the weekend. Each side blamed the other for letting the moratorium lapse, potentially leaving as many as 15 million people homeless.
It is not clear whether the new eviction moratorium will survive legal challenges. The Supreme Court last month signaled that the CDC overstepped its authority when it imposed the first ban in September 2020.
Speaking with reporters at the White House, President Biden said he didn’t know whether the option would pass constitutional muster. He said it was worth the effort because it would give renters extra time to figure out how to stay in their homes.
“There are a few scholars who say it will and others who say it’s not likely to,” Mr. Biden said. “But, at a minimum, by the time it gets litigated, it will probably give some additional time while we’re getting that $45 billion out to people who are in fact behind in the rent and don’t have the money.”
Mr. Biden was referring to the roughly $45 billion that the federal government provided to states and cities to keep renters in their homes under his coronavirus relief package. The White House has criticized states and cities for being “too slow” to disburse those funds.
The New Civil Liberties Alliance, which successfully sued the Biden administration to strike down the first eviction ban, vowed to take the latest moratorium to court.
“Reissuing the CDC eviction moratorium is unlawful, irrational, and will devastate mom-and-pop housing providers everywhere. NCLA will not stand for this. CDC never had legal authority to issue a nationwide eviction moratorium. Nothing has changed. This is your unlawful administrative state hard at work,” said Mark Chenworth, the group’s executive director and general counsel.
Emily Benfer, a visiting professor of law and public health at Wake Forest University and chairwoman of the American Bar Association’s Task Force Committee on Eviction, said she thinks courts will support the move.
Because the new moratorium is limited and the delta variant of the coronavirus is surging across the country, a court would wrestle with different questions than it did with the original ban, she said.
“I think this could be consistent with the [CDC’s] underlying authority,” Ms. Benfer said. “With these new facts we are dealing with from the pandemic and the very targeted moratorium, it is a very different consideration for the courts.”
The new guidance also represents a reversal from the administration’s position.
White House officials said Monday that the CDC could not justify a narrow extension of the ban, given the Supreme Court decision.
“To date, the CDC director and her team have been unable to find legal authority, even for a more targeted eviction moratorium that would focus just on counties with higher rates of COVID spread,” said Gene Sperling, Mr. Biden’s economic recovery czar.
Over the past several days, Biden administration officials insisted that the Supreme Court ruling tied their hands. They said they didn’t have the legal authority to impose a moratorium and called on Congress to act.
That created a rift between the president and liberal lawmakers, who urged Mr. Biden to find a way to extend the moratorium.
Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill ramped up pressure on the president because they didn’t have the votes in the House or Senate to extend the moratorium legislatively.
Rep. Mondaire Jones, New York Democrat, said the action marks a “turning point” in how the administration views liberals.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said Mr. Biden’s action would help renters living in fear of being tossed from their homes.
“This brand new moratorium will provide time for the money allocated by Congress to flow, as it helps stop the spread of the virus which is worsening due to the delta variant and protects families and landlords,” she said in a statement.
“I am especially pleased about what this means to the children who have had uncertainty about their housing, their health, and their education,” Mrs. Pelosi said.
Rep. Cori Bush, Missouri Democrat, camped outside the Capitol for days to draw attention to the plight of renters. She praised the news of the extension.
“I refused to accept that Congress could leave for vacation while 11 million people faced eviction,” she tweeted. “For 5 days, we’ve been out here, demanding that our government acts to save lives. Today, our movement moved mountains.”
But Doug Quattrochi, executive director of MassLandlords, which advocates for property owners in Massachusetts, said landlords were hoping for the moratorium to lapse. He said that landlords were getting stiffed on rent without the ability to threaten eviction, making it difficult for them to make ends meet.
“They haven’t been able to pay their mortgage, taxes or repairs,” he said.
Mr. Quattrochi estimates that about 30% of his members have sold their rental properties since October, one month after the eviction ban was implemented.
About 75% of landlords in Greater Boston are “mom and pop landlords,” meaning they own fewer than 15 units.
“They are not the corporate landlord. They are not a publicly traded company. They are the folks that sold” their properties, he said.
Roughly 7.4 million tenants reported being behind on their rent in June, according to a Census Bureau survey. About 3.6 million households said they were “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to be evicted in two months.
Those numbers are too low, according to the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit think tank. Its researchers estimate that 15 million people in 6.5 million households could be evicted if the moratorium expires.
Newspapers across the country were filled with reports of courts’ eviction dockets after the moratorium lapsed.
Ms. Benfer said keeping the moratorium in place is critical to combating COVID-19 because people kicked out of their homes tend to stay with family or friends or to look for shelter in crowded places.
“If we allow the eviction crisis to continue to surge forward, we are not only guaranteeing severe harm and hardship for those families, but we are also calling out one the most effective pandemic mitigation strategies we have in place,” she said.