The expiration of a national eviction moratorium provoked finger-pointing Thursday between the White House and congressional Democrats, who blamed each other for failing to resolve the situation before Saturday, when as many as 15 million Americans could be thrown out of their homes.
Democrats were exasperated that President Biden delayed a call for action until less than 72 hours before the moratorium is to be lifted. The ban was put into place about 11 months ago as part of federal coronavirus relief.
“This deadline’s been looming for months. Waiting to say anything until hours before it expires only to put the onus on Congress is unacceptable,” said Rep. Mondaire Jones, New York Democrat. “We need this administration to do everything in its power to keep Americans housed.”
Neither side mentioned the landlords who have been left on the hook for tenants’ unpaid back rent. When the moratorium ends, the amount owed in full adds up to impossible mountains of debt.
The Biden team said a unilateral order of an extension would be on shaky legal ground. The Supreme Court last month signaled that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overstepped its authority by imposing the moratorium in the first place.
“President Biden would have strongly supported a decision by the CDC to further extend this eviction moratorium to protect renters at this moment of heightened vulnerability. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has made clear that this option is no longer available,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.
A group of landlords, real estate companies and real estate trade associations went to federal court seeking an emergency ruling to end the ban. The coalition, estimating that the moratorium was costing more than $13 billion a month, argued that Congress never gave the CDC “the staggering amount of power it now claims.”
In a 5-4 decision last month, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh joined the court’s three liberal justices to allow the ban to continue through the end of July, but the court telegraphed that it would block further extensions unless there “was clear and specific congressional authorization.”
Getting a further eviction moratorium through Congress before Saturday will be next to impossible. Senate Democrats likely don’t have the votes to overcome a Republican filibuster, and a monthlong summer recess is scheduled to begin next week.
Julian Castro, who served as secretary of housing and urban development under President Obama, slammed the timing of the White House announcement.
“The [White House] is right that Congress must act. But these calls should have come weeks ago, not 72 hours before the moratorium expires,” Mr. Castro said in a post on Twitter.
He suggested that Mr. Biden extend the moratorium to keep people in their homes, at least until the Supreme Court hands down a decision.
Opponents of the moratorium said it had to end sooner or later, preferably sooner to allow the rental housing market to stabilize.
Mr. Biden was right to let the freeze lapse, said Devin Watkins, an attorney for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market advocacy group that opposed the extension.
“The Biden administration is finally accepting that it is required to work through Congress to change the law,” he said.
Mr. Watkins noted that Mr. Biden‘s statement Thursday was a reversal of the administration’s other legal arguments.
“More fundamentally, the eviction moratorium is terrible policy and continues to cause harm, regardless of which branch of government does it. Landlords don’t get paid while it exists, and it creates a flood of renters expected to pay years of back rent when it ends. In the end, with the eviction moratorium, everyone loses,” he said.
Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill said they were not giving up, though their options were limited.
A spokeswoman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the California Democrat agreed that the freeze must be extended and was “exploring all options to do so.”
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, also said through a spokesperson that he was exploring options and urging Republicans not to block any legislation to extend the moratorium.
Time is starting to run out, however. Congress is scheduled to start its summer recess Monday and won’t return until September.
Mr. Schumer and Mrs. Pelosi could schedule votes on an extension, but it would take some Republican votes to survive in the Senate.
Republican lawmakers opposed Mr. Biden‘s previous extensions of the eviction freeze. They said a better process was needed to keep renters in their homes without stiffing landlords.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, did not respond to a request for comment on the White House‘s call for action.
In the meantime, Mr. Biden has asked federal agencies with rental housing programs — the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Veterans Affairs — to extend their eviction bans through the end of September.
Ms. Psaki said the move would “provide continued protection for households living in federally insured, single-family properties.”
The CDC under President Trump first authorized the eviction moratorium, which prohibited landlords from evicting certain tenants who were behind on their rent as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Biden administration argues that an extension is critical now because the delta variant of the coronavirus is surging across the country.
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 the next 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 when the moratorium expires.
The deadline has been extended several times. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky pledged that the current extension would be the last.
Adding to concerns are claims that some renters haven’t received their share of $46.5 billion in aid. The Treasury Department eased the rules in May to improve access to the funds, but only 7% of available assistance has been disbursed, government statistics show.
Ms. Psaki called out state and local governments for contributing to the eviction calamity.
“There can be no excuse for any state or locality not to promptly deploy the resources that Congress appropriated to meet this critical need of so many Americans,” she said.