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Federal Judge Strikes Down Moratorium on Evicting Renters

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

The Biden administration will appeal the ruling against the policy, which has been the subject of legal challenges by landlords.

WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Wednesday struck down the nationwide moratorium on evictions imposed by the Trump administration last year and extended by President Biden until June 30, a ruling that could affect tenants struggling to pay rent during the pandemic.

The decision, by Judge Dabney Friedrich of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, is the most significant federal ruling on the moratorium yet, and follows three similar federal court decisions.

The Justice Department immediately filed an appeal, and requested an emergency stay on the order pending a decision by the higher court. Late Wednesday night, Judge Friedrich agreed to put her ruling on hold until May 12 to give landlords time to file legal papers opposing a longer delay, while making clear that the move was not a reflection of the “merits” of the government’s request.

It remains unclear how wide an impact the decision will have on renters. It does not necessarily bind state housing court judges, who rule on eviction orders, and two other federal courts have upheld the moratorium, adding to the confusion about its fate.

“There are now numerous conflicting court rulings at the district court level, with several judges ruling in favor of the moratorium and several ruling against,” said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a national tenants advocacy group.

“While this latest ruling is written more starkly than previous ones, it likely has equally limited application impacting only the plaintiffs who brought the case or, at most, renters in the district court’s jurisdiction,” she said.

Still, tenants’ rights groups said the decision on Wednesday could leave more low-income and working-class tenants vulnerable to eviction in coming weeks even as the Biden administration is beginning to disburse tens of billions of dollars in aid to help them catch up on unpaid rent.

Landlords said the decision validated their arguments that the legal basis for the federal moratorium was unsound and overstepped the government’s power.

The moratorium was enacted under the Public Health Service Act of 1944, which gives the federal government the power to impose quarantines and other measures to deal with health emergencies. In a 20-page decision, Judge Friedrich, who was appointed by President Donald J. Trump, ruled that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had exceeded its authority under that law when it carried out Mr. Trump’s order last summer to impose the moratorium.

“The question for the court is a narrow one: Does the Public Health Service Act grant the C.D.C. the legal authority to impose a nationwide eviction moratorium?” wrote Judge Friedrich. “It does not.”

The case was brought in November by the Alabama Association of Realtors and a group of real estate agents in Georgia who claimed the moratorium shifted the burden for rent payments from the tenants to landlords at a time when many owners have been struggling to meet their own expenses.

The moratorium has had a substantial effect. Despite the sharp economic downturn created by the pandemic, eviction filings declined 65 percent in 2020 over the usual annual rate, according to an analysis of court data by the nonprofit group Eviction Lab.

Housing analysts warned that Wednesday’s ruling could embolden more landlords to begin eviction proceedings against tenants before the federal government can disburse $45 billion in emergency housing assistance appropriated by Congress.

“It couldn’t come at a worse time,” Mary K. Cunningham, who studies housing with the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan policy group based in Washington, said of the court decision.

“This is happening just as communities are trying to beat the clock, waiting for the federal government to get its new housing subsidies out the door before the moratorium expires on June 30,” she said. “It’s terrible news.”

The pace of disbursement of the new housing assistance has been slow. Four months after Congress approved its first tens of billions of dollars in emergency rental aid, only a small portion has reached landlords and tenants, and in many places it is impossible even to file an application.

Landlords and real estate agents downplayed concerns that lifting the moratorium will create an eviction crisis. “With rental assistance secured, the economy strengthening and unemployment rates falling, there is no need to continue a blanket, nationwide eviction ban,” a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors said in a statement.

Owners of residential apartment buildings have long argued that the moratorium is based on legally shaky ground, and questioned the constitutionality of tethering a major intervention in the nation’s housing market to a federal statute intended to stop the transmission of disease.

The ruling “further demonstrates the unlawful nature of this policy and reinforces just how far the C.D.C. overstepped their authority,” said Robert Pinnegar, president of the National Apartment Association, a trade association representing large landlords, which has also pushed for an end to the moratorium.

“The government must end enforcement of the C.D.C. order and begin communications now to stakeholders, including judges, to prepare them for its ending,” he said.

The moratorium covers tens of millions of Americans, in a range of income levels.

The executive order signed by Mr. Trump covers any single renter making below $99,000 a year and families making twice that much. About 8.2 million tenants reported that they had fallen behind in their rent during the pandemic, according to the Census Bureau.

Enforcement of the moratorium has always been an uncertain, even chaotic, proposition, left to the discretion of state-level housing court judges.

Those judges make determinations based on a variety of criteria, not only the federal moratorium, including local eviction regulations and subjective factors such as a tenants’ payment history and a landlord’s record of making repairs.

Federal decisions, like the one issued Wednesday, are significant but serve as guidance rather than an order — although an unequivocal ruling from a prominent federal court is likely to sway some local judges, said Eric Dunn, director of litigation for the National Housing Law Project, a tenant advocacy group.

And legal analysts say the court’s narrow interpretation of the law, if upheld, could limit executive action during future health emergencies.

If the moratorium has been polarizing in the courts, it was one of the few pandemic policies that united Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump.

The CARES Act, passed in March 2020 with Mr. Trump’s support, included a 120-day moratorium on evictions from rental properties participating in federal assistance programs or underwritten by federal loans. On Aug. 8, 2020, Mr. Trump extended and broadened the moratorium through an executive order, leading to the C.D.C.’s action.

Shortly after taking office, Mr. Biden extended the moratorium.

A separate moratorium on evictions and foreclosures for federally funded housing from the Department of Housing and Urban Development also expires on June 30.

Administration officials have not said if they would seek to extend any of the freezes, but Mr. Dunn and others believe such a possibility is becoming less likely as mass vaccinations diminish the public health threat posed by tenants who are forced to move.

As the moratorium nears its end, the administration has been stepping up pressure on the nation’s biggest residential landlords following reports that apartment building owners were seeking to evict tens of thousands of renters despite the freeze.

On Wednesday, Jen Psaki, Mr. Biden’s spokeswoman, told reporters the administration would fight to uphold the moratorium, estimating that it had prevented 1.55 million evictions over the last year. “We recognize the importance of the eviction moratorium for Americans who have fallen behind on rent during the pandemic,” she said.

Most states have enacted their own eviction freezes beyond the action taken by Washington. On Monday, New York State lawmakers passed legislation that would extend a statewide moratorium on residential and commercial evictions through Aug. 31.

The extension would provide additional relief for tenants, who have had broad protection from being taken to housing court since the start of the pandemic, just as New York is expected to start distributing $2.4 billion in rental assistance to struggling renters.

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