IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Miles Howard Eviction may await millions of Americans this summer. Here's what Biden can do to help.

A judge this week said landlords should be allowed to start evicting the 9 million Americans behind on their rent. We need to head off this disaster now.
Image:
Housing activists gather to protest alleged tenant harassment by a landlord and call for cancellation of rent on July 31, 2020 in Brooklyn, N.Y.Scott Heins / Getty Images file

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimates that, right now, nearly 9 million of the estimated 45 million American households who rent their homes are behind on rent payments. And in December, the Urban Institute estimated that 10 million U.S. renters owed roughly $57 billion in back rent and late fees.

So there was good reason for one of President Joe Biden’s first executive orders extending the eviction moratorium instituted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through March 30. Before then, as America’s daily Covid-19 death rate remained stuck in the low thousands, the CDC re-extended the moratorium, to a tentative date of June 30.

But on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich ruled against the moratorium in a lawsuit brought by the National Association of Realtors, arguing that the CDC lacked the authority to impose restrictions on landlords. Friedrich found that the Public Health Service Act’s federal protocols for responding to a health emergency do not allow the CDC to uphold an eviction moratorium — even though researchers found that allowing evictions to take place in certain states from March to September of 2020 led to more than 433,000 recorded Covid-19 infections and 10,700 deaths.

Evictions tend to have the worst impact on lower income communities of color which have already suffered some of the worst infection rates and death tolls in the pandemic.

Other judges have previously rejected the moratorium, but Friedrich’s ruling could have more severe ripple effects because in those prior cases, the scope of the rulings were limited to only the plaintiffs who brought the cases. By refusing to narrow her ruling, Friedrich effectively nationalized her decision and put many more renters at risk of eviction.

The Department of Justice had announced it will appeal the decision, and on Thursday, Friedrich issued a temporary stay on her order. But even during a stay, Friedrich’s decision has the potential to give cover to landlords who wish to begin eviction proceedings: Slapping a "Notice to Quit" on a renter’s door can intimidate the renter into moving out (it’s known as an informal eviction) and many renters could soon receive such notices.

Evictions, of course, tend to have the worst impact on lower income communities of color; those neighborhoods have already suffered some of the worst infection rates and death tolls in the pandemic, in part because many renters in such neighborhoods are essential workers from hazardous workplaces like meatpacking plants and restaurant kitchens, where Covid-19 transmission has been endemic.

The Biden administration can and should do more than simply fight for the CDC eviction moratorium to be restored.

There was supposed to be help on the way. Over the last four months, Congress approved more than $46 billion for rental support — which would fully or partially cover rent payments for tenants experiencing financial hardship as a result of the pandemic — and distributed it to states for local disbursement. But only a small fraction of this money has actually reached renters and landlords so far.

Some states set up new systems for distributing the money through an application process, while other states with pre-existing rental assistance programs — which are supposed to be distributing the new money from Congress — have long been hamstrung by years of red tape buildup that have made it even harder for renters and landlords to get the money they need now.

For instance, Massachusetts at first required rental relief applicants to provide physical copies of their birth certificates or social security cards, plus a month’s worth of consecutive pay stubs to qualify for any emergency rent relief. Forcing applicants to track down these documents amid a pandemic created both tremendous hurdles for people and administrative backlogs for the state agencies tasked with approving or denying them — which meant weeks or months of waiting for rent relief decisions. This rule wasn’t rescinded until late 2020, when the state streamlined the application approval process so that more renters could get help as the pandemic winter began.

We almost never hear about renters as a class, and certainly not nearly as often as we talk about a first-time homeowner struggling to squeeze into a real estate market.

The Biden administration has already been scrambling to ensure that more of the federal rent relief money starts getting out the door faster; overturning the CDC’s eviction moratorium will provide new urgency to the existing problem.

Gene Sperling, who oversees spending of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, had told Politico on Tuesday before the court's decision that the White House “will soon announce new stepped-up efforts to get relief to renters most in need.” But what does “soon” mean — especially in context of this new ruling? Renters and their landlords have already waited for months, and court rulings like Friedrich’s could be the final straw for property owners and realtors who’ve grown impatient with waiting for rent checks and with putting up with the bureaucratic inefficiencies of local government.

The Biden administration can and should do more than simply fight for the CDC eviction moratorium to be restored.

To address the rent relief disbursement backlog, the Treasury Department must offer better guidance to state governments on how to distribute the rent relief money (as Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., called on Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to do in March). But clearer guidance alone may not be enough: State leaders could choose to sit on rent relief funds for political reasons, both to the detriment of renters and, by extension, to smaller landlords who might then decide to evict.

Perhaps what’s needed is incentives for states to participate: The Biden administration has already mulled an “all carrot, no stick” strategy to persuade states to reform exclusionary zoning laws; they could also offer extra pandemic relief money for states that resolve rent relief bottlenecks by adding it to the Democrats’ pending infrastructure package.

Finally, a subtler yet powerful thing that Biden could do for renters is to talk about their plight more often. Renters are as much of a part of America’s story as homeowners are — almost no one goes straight from living in a home that their parents own to one they buy themselves — and they should be part of our current narrative of pandemic tribulation and recovery, which Biden has already leveraged to catalyze support for the American Rescue Plan. But we almost never hear about renters as a class, and certainly not nearly as often as we talk about a first-time homeowner struggling to squeeze into a real estate market.

By speaking to the dignity and vulnerabilities of renters, Biden could demonstrate the importance of the eviction moratorium to the greater public. This, along with solving the rent relief bottleneck, would spotlight a crisis for many Americans that usually goes on while too many of us look the other way.