Landlords cheer as federal court trashes eviction moratorium
Tenants facing possible eviction hung banners from their windows at the Meridian Heights apartment building in Northwest Washington, D.C. | Caroline Brehman / CQ Roll Call via AP

Up to ten million people could soon be out on the streets if a judge’s ruling trashing the federal moratorium on evictions is upheld. The ban on throwing people out of their homes was put in place by the Centers for Disease Control last September as spiraling unemployment jeopardized families’ ability to pay their rent. The economic crisis raised the threat that evicted tenants would swamp overcrowded shelters or squeeze into relatives’ and friends’ homes, spreading the deadly virus.

The latest jobs growth numbers, which revealed a sharp decline for April compared to March, show that the economic recovery remains shaky. Tenant advocates warn a wave of evictions at this moment could endanger the country’s progress in recovering from both the health and financial impacts of the pandemic. “It feels like the pandemic, at least in the U.S., is coming to an end, but it’s not over yet,” Eric Dunn, of the National Housing Law Project, told the press. “If we have a wave of mass evictions, it could really set us back,” he added.

That danger did not stop Judge Dabney Friedrich of the D.C. District Court from striking down the moratorium in a decision issued Wednesday. The Trump-appointed judge said the government overstepped its authority in using the Public Health Service Act of 1944, which allows for quarantines and other measures to deal with health emergencies, as a justification to keep tenants in their homes when they couldn’t pay rent.

Landlords nationwide cheered Friedrich’s ruling that the CDC had no power to interfere in the private rental market or prevent property owners from putting people out. Robert Pinnegar, president of the National Apartment Association, which represents some of the country’s biggest landlords, said the decision “further demonstrates the unlawful nature of this policy and reinforces just how far the CDC overstepped their authority.”

Justice Department lawyers immediately filed an appeal and requested an emergency stay—a hold—on enforcement of the ruling until a higher court can decide. Friedrich gave the government until May 12.

“Scientific evidence shows that evictions exacerbate the spread of COVID-19, which has already killed more than half a million Americans, and the harm to the public that would result from unchecked evictions cannot be undone,” Brian M. Boynton, acting assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Division said in response to Friedrich’s decision.

The eviction moratorium had been set to expire March 31, but the Biden administration recently extended it through the end of June. Crafted by the CDC when Trump was still in the White House, the original order was full of hurdles for tenants and loopholes for landlords. The leader of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Diane Yentel, has said that there were “shortcomings in the order that still allowed some evictions to continue during the pandemic.”

Faulty as it may have been, the moratorium still kept millions in their homes; a study from the non-profit group Eviction Lab found that court eviction filings were down 65% for the year 2020. Experts warn that ending the moratorium now could set off a tidal wave of evictions.

Around 15% of renters nationwide currently owe back rent, but that national average obscures major racial disparities. For Black tenants, the number of those behind on rent could be as high as 22%, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. Among Latino tenants, 18%, and for Asian Americans 22%. For comparison, among white tenants, 8.6% report being behind on their rent.

The numbers are a reflection of the historic discriminations faced by renters of color, but also of the specific impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. Workers of color were more likely to have lost their jobs during the crisis, for instance, and Black Americans were three times more likely than whites to have been hospitalized with COVID-19. For women of color, the situation is compounded. The National Women’s Law Center says that Black women continue to be most at risk of eviction.

The case heard by Friedrich was filed late last year by the Alabama and Georgia associations of realtors, but it is only one of many legal challenges that have been made against the moratorium. Landlords have released a lawsuit onslaught, with at least six cases working their way through the courts. Before Friedrich, three judges ruled in favor of the eviction ban and three against. All the cases are currently going through appeals, and the split decisions make it likely the matter will ultimately have to be decided by a higher court.

Of course, given that the moratorium would have ended on June 30 anyway, tenant organizations are also focused on getting the $45 billion in rental aid appropriated by Congress into the hands of tenants who need it as fast as possible. With the Chamber of Commerce and employers’ organizations demanding an end to the $300 federal unemployment supplement at the same time landlords are rushing to file eviction paperwork, the danger of a new economic slump is increasing.

“It couldn’t come at a worse time,” Mary K. Cunningham of the Urban Institute said of Friedrich’s ruling. She and other housing analysts worry that landlords will speed up their efforts to kick out as many renters as possible before the emergency housing assistance gets disbursed.

“This is happening just as communities are trying to beat the clock, waiting for the federal government to get its new housing subsidies out the door,” she said. “It’s terrible news.”

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Meanwhile, celebrations continue among the propertied classes and their political representatives. Chuck Fowke of the National Association of Home Builders, a group behind one of the anti-moratorium lawsuits, says ending the “poorly thought out and illegal” eviction ban will free landlords from “the responsibility to provide free housing during this pandemic.” Rep. Thomas Massie, Republican congressman from Kentucky, said the “moratorium didn’t keep people in their homes, it kept people in other people’s homes.”

But Diane Yentel of the National Low Income Housing Coalition provided the people’s answer to the eviction crisis: “The pandemic has made clear that housing is healthcare, and that the federal government must address the systemic, structural reasons millions of America’s lowest-income and most marginalized renters are just one financial shock away from falling behind on their rent, facing eviction, and in worst cases, experiencing homelessness.”

Beyond the current moratorium and unemployment supplements, to ensure long-term housing stability for people with the greatest, clearest needs, the coalition says Congress must invest in the National Housing Trust Fund to build, repair, and maintain homes that are affordable for working and poor people.

For more information, check out the National Low Income Housing Coalition.


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.