seanmcgrath / CC BY

September 1, 2020; New York Times and Washington Post

In a sign that public pressure and advocacy at the federal level can sometimes be effective, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has ordered a halt to evictions nationwide through the end of 2020 on public health grounds. The agency cited Section 361 of the Public Health Service Act as authorizing the moratorium, saying any delay in the action “would be impracticable and contrary to the public health.”

The order does not address long-term issues—in particular, legislation (and at least $100 billion in federal money, certainly) will be required to provide rent relief so that tenants do not face unpayable bills after the moratorium ends—but the order does hold a possible national eviction tsunami at bay, at least for the next four months.

The idea that tens of millions of Americans could be forced out of their homes, at any time—but especially in the midst of a pandemic—was, as Denise Scott wrote in NPQ this past Monday, “too horrifying to contemplate.”

An interesting facet of the order, even if this is a statement of the obvious, is that addressing housing as a matter of public health forced the Trump administration in its order to acknowledge the severity of the pandemic we face. For instance, the order says:

COVID-19 presents a historic threat to public health. According to one recent study, the mortality associated with COVID-19 during the early phase of the outbreak in New York City was comparable to the peak mortality observed during the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic.

And also:

In the context of a pandemic, eviction moratoria—like quarantine, isolation, and social distancing—can be an effective public health measure utilized to prevent the spread of communicable disease. Eviction moratoria facilitate self-isolation by people who become ill or who are at risk for severe illness from COVID-19 due to an underlying medical condition. They also allow State and local authorities to more easily implement stay-at-home and social distancing directives to mitigate the community spread of COVID-19. Furthermore, housing stability helps protect public health because homelessness increases the likelihood of individuals moving into congregate settings, such as homeless shelters, which then puts individuals at higher risk to COVID-19.

As Matthew Goldstein writes in the New York Times, “The moratorium would go further than the eviction ban under the pandemic CARES Act.” The CARES act moratorium, which expired on July 24th, only applied to properties financed by federal agencies or with federally backed mortgages. The CDC document states, “Under this Order, a landlord, owner of a residential property, or other person with a legal right to pursue eviction or possessory action, shall not evict any covered person from any residential property in any jurisdiction to which this Order applies.”

The Order specifies that it applies in all US jurisdictions except American Samoa—as it has no COVID-19 cases—or in places that already have stronger legal protections in place.

Yesterday’s action is important, but it comes too late for too many US families. Emily Benfer, a Wake Forest law professor who chairs the American Bar Association’s work on evictions, tells Tony Romm of the Washington Post that in recent weeks evictions have skyrocketed in states such as Alabama and cities like Tucson, Arizona. She adds that further trouble still awaits us, as families are “paying with their futures.”

“They are using credit cards and taking on financial risk,” she says. “They know without it they cannot keep their families safe.”

To qualify for moratorium protection, tenants will have to provide a signed affidavit. As Goldstein explains, “To apply for the new moratorium, tenants will have to attest to a substantial loss of household income, the inability to pay full rent and best efforts to pay partial rent. Tenants must also stipulate that eviction would be likely to leave them homeless or force them to live with others at close quarters.”

The signed affidavit also requires tenants to swear under penalty of perjury that they expect to earn less than $99,000 a year if single or $198,000 if married in 2020.

Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, says the order “will provide relief from the growing threat of eviction for millions of anxious families,” but warns that it is “a half-measure that extends a financial cliff for renters to fall off of when the moratorium expires and back rent is owed.”—Steve Dubb