Housing

Biden buys time with new eviction ban

President Biden is attempting to thread the needle by replacing a lapsed federal eviction ban with new protections designed to keep millions of Americans from losing their homes amid surging coronavirus cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Tuesday night imposed a new, narrower moratorium to replace the one that expired Sunday. But there are already questions about the legality of the order.

The CDC said it is prohibiting evictions in counties with high rates of COVID-19 transmission through Oct. 3, aligning with areas where the agency has asked Americans to wear masks in public indoor settings even if vaccinated. The ban is expected to cover 90 percent of the U.S. population and 80 percent of counties.

"This is a tremendous relief for millions of people who were on the cusp of losing their homes and, with them, their ability to stay safe during the pandemic," said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in a Tuesday statement.

The move offers a reprieve to the intense political pressure Biden was under from Democrats to issue another ban as the delta variant tears through some of the most eviction-vulnerable communities in the U.S. Though some residents are protected by similar state moratoria, many more were scrambling to secure some form of shelter.

The Aspen Institute estimated that as many as 15 million Americans across 6.5 million households were facing eviction this month.

Tuesday's order was an about-face of sorts.

White House officials on Monday had pledged to explore the limits of the president's powers on renewing the ban, while at the same time saying the CDC lacked the authority to issue an extension without an act of Congress.

"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, Biden's economic recovery czar, on Monday.

Comments like those, along with a Supreme Court ruling this summer, are raising questions about whether Tuesday's order will be able to withstand legal scrutiny.

The Supreme Court in late June upheld the CDC's previous moratorium but warned that a further extension of the ban beyond its July 31 deadline would exceed the agency's authority unless Congress passed a law to expand it.

Biden on Tuesday acknowledged that the new order stood on tenuous legal ground but said it was worth the risk.

"Whether that option will pass constitutional measure with this administration, I can't tell you. I don't know," Biden said. "There are a few scholars who say it will, and others who say it's not likely to. 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."

The CDC first imposed the eviction moratorium in September as a previous ban enacted by former President Trump through COVID-19 relief legislation was set to expire. The agency argued that the move was necessary to curb the spread of COVID-19, citing broad powers to take any steps deemed essential to contain pandemics.

The Biden administration extended the moratorium on more than one occasion, most recently in June for what the CDC said would be the last time. But as COVID-19 cases spiked in July, when federal rental aid failed to reach many tenants, experts said it became clear that struggling renters would need more time to find their footing.

"The long-term solutions will be that much further out of reach if the eviction crisis is allowed to proliferate," said Emily Benfer, a law professor at Wake Forest University and evictions expert, in a Monday email.

"The evidence is clear: inaction in this moment guarantees two Americas, leaving the people hardest hit by the pandemic pushed to the one at the outskirts of society, away from opportunity and the ability to thrive and at heightened risk of COVID-19 infection and death."

But even with the eviction ban, the U.S. has seen a rise in homelessness.

Amy Hall, an attorney with the Montana Legal Services, a nonprofit that provides legal aid to low income renters, says her office has seen a significant jump in calls from tenants since the pandemic hit, and that increase is only "continuing" to climb.

Hall said she has seen more locals sleeping on sidewalks with shopping carts containing their personal belongings.

"There's just no place for folks to find housing that they can afford. It's really, really bad and the CDC moratorium expiration is only going to make it worse," she said before the order was announced.

In Houston, Glenda Kizzee, who works as a housing manager at the local Urban League, said her office has been receiving upward of 100 calls a day from renters worrying about how to make ends meet.

Kizzee said the bulk of the calls have come from Black and Latino Americans, who are among the groups that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic due to longstanding racial disparities and economic inequality.

"What if that person lost the housing or they lost income, so they could no longer cover an extra person? And now that person is in their car, or rather completely homeless because they have no other options," Kizzee said.

Biden administration officials have often pointed to billions in federal aid as a mechanism for easing the housing crisis.

But state and local governments have struggled to distribute much of the $46 billion allocated by the Treasury Department, instead of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to address housing needs.

In an interview with The Hill, Abby Boshart, a policy coordinator in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, said the task has been "really difficult" for local governments.

"It's important to highlight that these local actors have really done tremendous work to develop these programs," she said. "This funding didn't come through HUD, or housing authorities, who typically distribute rental assistance and have experience doing so." 

Housing leaders say a lack of awareness of the aid program, in addition to difficulties accessing online applications, has created challenges for would-be recipients.

"You've got folks who, one, don't believe it. Two, don't have access to it because it's online. And then three, they don't trust the message that's out there that you can apply," Kizzee said.

With the new CDC eviction moratorium slated to expire in two months, assuming it survives any legal challenges, Hall, with Montana Legal Services, said more needs to be done to boost awareness surrounding the rental aid.

"We still need to get the word out. These programs are available and renters can get help," she said.

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