US Supreme Court blocks Joe Biden’s eviction moratorium

Decision puts hundreds of thousands at risk of losing their homes during Covid-19 crisis

People during a demonstration in Manhattan calling for  expanded eviction protections for tenants during the Covid-19 crisis. Photograph: Ahmed Gaber/The New York Times

People during a demonstration in Manhattan calling for expanded eviction protections for tenants during the Covid-19 crisis. Photograph: Ahmed Gaber/The New York Times

 

The US Supreme Court has rejected the Biden administration’s latest moratorium on evictions, ending a political and legal dispute during the Covid-19 crisis in which the administration’s shifting positions had subjected it to criticism from adversaries and allies alike.

The court issued an eight-page majority opinion, an unusual move in a ruling on an application for emergency relief, where terse orders are more common. The court’s three liberal justices dissented.

The decision puts hundreds of thousands of tenants at risk of losing shelter, while the administration struggles to speed the flow of billions of dollars in federal funding to people who are behind in rent because of the economic hardship associated with the pandemic.

Only about $5.1 billion of the $46.5 billion in aid had been disbursed by the end of July, according to figures released this week, as bureaucratic delays at the state and local levels delayed payouts.

The majority opinion, which was unsigned, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had exceeded its authority.

Strains credulity

“The CDC has imposed a nationwide moratorium on evictions in reliance on a decades-old statute that authorizes it to implement measures like fumigation and pest extermination,” the opinion said. “It strains credulity to believe that this statute grants the CDC the sweeping authority that it asserts.”

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the three dissenting justices, faulted the court for its haste during a public health crisis.

“These questions call for considered decision-making, informed by full briefing and argument,” he wrote. “Their answers impact the health of millions. We should not set aside the CDC’s eviction moratorium in this summary proceeding.”

The majority said the issues were fully considered and straightforward. “It is indisputable that the public has a strong interest in combating the spread of the Covid-19 Delta variant,” the opinion said. “But our system does not permit agencies to act unlawfully even in pursuit of desirable ends.”

“If a federally imposed eviction moratorium is to continue,” the opinion said, “Congress must specifically authorize it.”

Public interest

In dissent, Justice Breyer wrote that “the public interest is not favoured by the spread of disease or a court’s second-guessing of the CDC’s judgment.”

The Biden administration and other moratorium proponents predicted that the decision would set off a wave of dire consequences.

“As a result of this ruling, families will face the painful impact of evictions, and communities across the country will face greater risk of exposure to Covid-19,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said in a statement.

The ruling also renewed pressure on congressional Democrats to try to extend the freeze over the opposition of Republicans.

“Tonight, the Supreme Court failed to protect the 11 million households across our country from violent eviction in the middle of a deadly global pandemic,” said Demoncrat representative Cori Bush, who slept on the steps of the Capitol this month to protest the expiration of the previous moratorium.

“We already know who is going to bear the brunt of this disastrous decision, black and brown communities, and especially black women.”

But landlords, who have said the moratoriums saddled them with billions of dollars in debt, hailed the move.

Debt tsunami

“The government must move past failed policies and begin to seriously address the nation’s debt tsunami, which is crippling both renters and housing providers alike,” said Bob Pinnegar, the president of the National Apartment Association, a trade association representing large landlords.

It will most likely take a while for the backlog of eviction cases in many states to result in the displacement of renters. But tenant groups in the south, where fast-track evictions are common, are bracing for the worst.

In recent days, Mr Biden’s team has been mapping out strategies to deal with the likely loss of the moratorium, with a plan to focus its efforts on a handful of states including South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Ohio where there are large backlogs of unpaid rent and few statewide protections for tenants. - New York Times