Eviction ruling puts new pressure on Congress

The Supreme Court is seen at sunset on June 7
Greg Nash

Congress is under new pressure to keep millions of Americans in their homes after the Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration’s latest eviction moratorium.

The court said in its 6-3 ruling late Thursday night that it is up to Congress to authorize a freeze on evictions, but lawmakers have been unable to make that happen.

Members of Congress are urging state and local governments to quickly get federal rental assistance funds into the hands of eligible recipients. They are also weighing additional legislative action to extend the moratorium and speed up the delivery of rental aid.

Democrats narrowly control both the House and the Senate, making congressional action challenging on divisive issues like the eviction ban. But they say they want to prevent a wave of evictions at a time when coronavirus cases have increased due in part to the highly contagious delta variant and the number of unvaccinated Americans.

“Congressional Democrats have not and will not ever accept a situation of mass evictions,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) said in a statement Friday. “We will continue our work to ensure that families suffering hardship during the pandemic can have the safety of home, as we also work with communities to ensure the immediate disbursement by states and localities of the over $45 billion allocated by Congress for rental assistance.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) initially imposed an eviction moratorium last year, amid the coronavirus pandemic, and it was extended under the Biden administration through the end of July. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh said in June that Congress would need to pass additional legislation in order for the CDC to extend the moratorium beyond the July 31 expiration date.

House Democratic leaders were unable to get enough support to pass an extension of the moratorium before lawmakers left Washington at the end of July for their August recess. The Biden administration subsequently issued a new ban on evictions that targeted areas with high COVID-19 transmission.

Realtor groups led by the Alabama Association of Realtors challenged the new moratorium. In an unsigned opinion late Thursday, the Supreme Court said the groups are “virtually certain to succeed on the merits of their argument that the CDC has exceeded its authority.” The court lifted a stay on a district court’s ruling that found the moratorium to be unlawful.

The court added that Congress needs to “specifically authorize” a federal eviction moratorium if one is to continue.

“It would be one thing if Congress had specifically authorized the action that the CDC has taken,” the court said. “But that has not happened.”

The Supreme Court’s three liberal justices dissented from the ruling, arguing that “the public interest strongly favors respecting the CDC’s judgment at this moment, when over 90% of counties are experiencing high transmission rates.”

The ruling could have significant consequences for households hard-hit by the pandemic, absent further action by Congress, the Biden administration and state governments. The lifting of the moratorium comes just days before federal unemployment benefit programs are set to expire on Sept. 6.

Residents of several million households are concerned they’ll have to leave their homes due to eviction in the next two months, according to recent Census Bureau data. An analysis of census data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that renters of color are more likely to report being behind on rent.

The ruling comes as state and local governments have struggled to distribute federal rental assistance aid authorized by Congress. The Treasury Department said earlier this week that only 11 percent of the aid has been delivered to tenants, landlords and utility companies.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement after the Supreme Court ruling that “President Biden is once again calling on all entities that can prevent evictions – from cities and states to local courts, landlords, Cabinet Agencies – to urgently act to prevent evictions.”

Democrats in Congress are also urging state and local governments to promptly get funds to renters and landlords.

“It is vital that state and local governments join us in preventing evictions, including connecting renters with the assistance we passed so that families can stay in their homes as we work to put this public health crisis behind us,” Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said in a statement.

Some Democratic lawmakers are now pressing for legislative action.

Progressive Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Cori Bush (D-Mo.), Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) led more than 60 House Democrats on Friday in pressing congressional leaders for an “ambitious legislative solution.”

“We implore you to act with the highest levels of urgency to advance a permanent legislative solution in a must pass legislative vehicle in order to extend the life-saving federal eviction moratorium for the duration of the deadly global health crisis,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

A separate press release from Bush — who spearheaded a sit-in on the steps of the Capitol late last month that played a key role in the administration issuing the moratorium that the Supreme Court just blocked — suggested that Congress could pass a bill to extend the eviction moratorium through Dec. 31, or could pass legislation to give the Department of Health and Human Services the legal authority to address the eviction crisis.

But there are obstacles to Congress passing legislation to establish an eviction ban.

The House late last month was unable to get enough votes to pass an extension of the previous moratorium. Republicans objected to an effort to unanimously pass an extension through Oct. 18, while Democrats also struggled to get consensus within their caucus about how to proceed. Additionally, a bill to pass an eviction moratorium would need some Republican support in the Senate in order to pass.

“Congress absolutely should implement a broad eviction moratorium,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “They should have done so at any point over the last 18 months. They haven’t done so because they don’t have the votes.”

Republicans criticized Biden for extending the eviction moratorium and argued that the administration has mismanaged the emergency rental assistance program.

“The blame for this entire situation rests squarely with the Biden Administration and Congressional Democrats. Instead of fixing the flawed Emergency Rental Assistance program to provide support to families in need, the Biden Administration extended its unconstitutional eviction moratorium,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry (N.C.), the top Republican on the House Financial Services Committee. McHenry also touted a Republican bill aimed at expediting the disbursal of rental assistance funds.

House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said she’s working on a proposal focused on speeding up implementation of the rental assistance program, given that Congress doesn’t have the votes to pass a moratorium extension.

“We are all well aware of just how critical it is to ensure that families and children across this country remain safely housed with a roof over their heads,” Waters said in a statement Thursday after the court ruling. “As Congress moves forward to address this issue, I urge each of my colleagues to support my legislation and do the right thing to avoid an unnecessary public health and housing catastrophe.”

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Ayanna Pressley Brett Kavanaugh Charles Schumer eviction ban Eviction moratorium Jen Psaki Jimmy Gomez Joe Biden Maxine Waters Nancy Pelosi Patrick McHenry rental aid Sherrod Brown Supreme Court ruling

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