Yellen tries to tamp down Democrats fury over evictions ban

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen answers questions during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing to examine the FY 2022 budget request for the Treasury Department on Wednesday, June 23, 2021.
Greg Nash

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Tuesday sought to soothe tensions with House Democrats over emergency rental assistance, telling furious lawmakers that the Biden administration is fighting aggressively to get billions of dollars in previously approved aid to those at risk of being evicted.

But in the conference call with the House Democratic Caucus, Yellen reiterated the administration’s claim that it lacks the power to extend a recently expired eviction moratorium that had protected vulnerable renters through much of the COVID-19 crisis. She’s urging state and local governments to take steps to ensure that more than $46 billion in rental assistance — of which about $3 billion has been spent — gets to those who need it. 

That message was not received well by Democrats, who were frustrated that the administration had waited until the eleventh hour to ask Congress to intervene and are now calling on President Biden to extend the moratorium by executive action.

The call “did nothing to placate anyone,” one House Democratic lawmaker on the call told The Hill. 

Among those who challenged Yellen on Tuesday’s call was Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), chair of the House Financial Services Committee and author of legislation to extend the eviction moratorium — a bill that failed on the House floor on Friday.

Although Waters’s tone was “respectful,” the lawmaker said, Waters is among the loudest voices maintaining that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) holds the authority to extend the moratorium without congressional action. 

“I don’t buy that the CDC can’t extend the eviction moratorium — something it has already done in the past! Who is going to stop them? Who is going to penalize them?” Waters tweeted Monday. “There is no official ruling saying that they cannot extend this moratorium. C’mon CDC – have a heart! Just do it!”

Yellen told lawmakers that the Treasury Department is committed to keeping people in their homes by helping connect renters on the verge of eviction to emergency rental aid, sharing best practices among cities and states, and boosting awareness about the program. 

“Treasury is using every tool available to us,” Yellen said, according to lawmakers on the call.

And she emphasized that Biden has asked CDC officials to act on extending the moratorium, even though lawyers for the agency maintain they don’t have the power to do so. 

Designed to protect vulnerable renters through the economic upheaval sparked by the coronavirus pandemic, the eviction moratorium was adopted last year and renewed by the Biden administration on June 24. But a ruling by the Supreme Court on June 29, while allowing the most recent extension to proceed, also concluded that it would be the last one. Without congressional action, the moratorium expired on Aug. 1. 

The lapse infuriated liberal Democrats, who lashed out at Biden and his financial team for waiting until Thursday — one day before the expiration — to ask Congress to extend the moratorium legislatively. They were also angry with House Democratic leaders, who like the administration had known for more than a month that the renters’ benefit was set to end. 

“Everybody knew this was coming,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said Friday. “We were sounding the alarm.”

Democratic leaders, for their part, have also been frustrated with the administration, though they’ve been more subdued in showing it publicly. They’ve said they expected the administration to attempt to extend the moratorium beyond July, even despite the Supreme Court ruling, and suggested they were blind-sided by the request to move legislation late last week, just days before the monthlong August recess. 

“At the last minute it became clear that we were going to have the moratorium expire, and the administration concluded that it was without the legal power to take action,” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Friday. “There was great concern about the welfare of both renters and landlords.” 

After a long day of tense internal negotiations Friday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Democratic leaders punted the issue, attempting to pass a 2 1/2 month extension of the renters’ benefit by a unanimous consent vote that they knew would fail, given the unanimous opposition from House Republicans. 

While Waters has been working the phones with White House officials and House leaders, a progressive first-term lawmaker, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), has been drawing national attention to the issue from outside the Capitol. Bush and progressive activists have been sleeping on the steps of the Capitol since Friday when the House left town for recess. 

Her protest is even more poignant given that Bush and her two young children were once homeless. Several of her House colleagues, including Ocasio-Cortez, Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Mark Takano (D-Calif.), have stopped by to show their support, as have Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

On Monday afternoon, her protest got the attention of the White House. She met with Vice President Harris and pressed her to help extend the eviction ban.

“I needed her to look me in my eyes and I wanted to look in hers when I asked for help to prevent our people from being evicted,” Bush tweeted. “Madam Vice President, let’s work together to get this done. We need a federal eviction moratorium.” 

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Chuck Schumer Janet Yellen Joe Biden Mark Takano Maxine Waters Nancy Pelosi Steny Hoyer

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