In a surprisingly aggressive relief measure unveiled late Tuesday afternoon, the Trump administration announced a sweeping ban on evictions of tenants who are unable to pay rent because of the coronavirus crisis. Starting this Friday, September 4, it will temporarily stop millions of U.S. renters from being evicted in a bid to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Unusually, the order comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, under its authority to regulate public health, and it covers all 43 million U.S. residential renters so long as they meet income eligibility requirements. The policy comes roughly a month after President Donald Trump tasked the CDC and other federal agencies to study the issue, and as the president has faced mounting pressure to protect tenants since a previous federal moratorium on evictions expired at the end of July.
It’s the Trump administration’s boldest move yet in this area, and would go so far as to impose criminal penalties on landlords who violate the ban. But the administration stopped short of setting aside any new federal dollars for renters, who will eventually owe months of back rent, or for landlords, particularly small individual owners who often lack the cash reserves of their larger counterparts and may themselves be in a bind. The new order also doesn’t stop evictions for reasons other than being unable to pay.
Who’s covered under the new moratorium?
It applies to individual renters who expect to earn less than $99,000 this year on their own or less than $198,000 if they file jointly. It also applies to any renter who did not report income in 2019 or received a stimulus check earlier this year. To qualify, tenants must file sworn declarations that eviction would leave them homeless or force them into “close quarters in a new congregate or shared living setting” and affirm that they’ve “used best efforts to obtain all available government assistance for rent or housing.”
To be clear, renters who qualify will still owe accrued rent. Nor does the new order prevent landlords from charging or collecting rent. Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, described the new policy as “long overdue and badly needed” but added that, “This action delays but does not prevent evictions. Congress and the White House must get back to work on negotiations to enact a covid-19 relief bill with at least $100 billion in emergency rental assistance.”
For how long does this take effect?
It applies through December 31, 2020.
Who isn’t covered?
Evictions for reasons other than nonpayment of rent will be allowed to proceed: those for leases that have simply run out, for example, or for tenants who have allegedly violated their lease. That stipulation opens the door for landlords to bring more eviction cases against tenants as their leases expire.
More generally, landlords themselves have expressed reservations about the order, fearing they could be left facing financial peril without relief. “Not only does an eviction moratorium not address renters’ real financial needs, a protracted eviction moratorium does nothing to address the financial pressures and obligations of rental property owners,” said Doug Bibby, the president of the National Multifamily Housing Coalition.
Don’t some states already do this?
Yes. The CDC order would defer to states with more generous protections, such as Vermont, where Governor Phillip Murphy has halted all evictions until he declares an end to the ongoing state of emergency. For New Yorkers, the moratorium would extend a state court directive past its expected expiration on October 1. It will no doubt come as a relief for tenants in the 34 states where no such protections exist.
So who would enforce this?
That would be through a partnership of “Federal authorities and cooperating State and local authorities.” Specifically, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is authorized to aid local agencies in the “enforcement of Federal quarantine rules and regulations, including in the enforcement of this Order.”
Local marshals and sheriffs typically carry out eviction warrants once they have been issued by a judge. It’s unclear what steps the Trump administration would take should local officials move forward with qualifying evictions. In the case of landlords who seek to evict tenants who are covered under the order, the U.S. Department of Justice could bring down the hammer with fines of upwards of $500,000 and even prison time. You have to wonder whether federal marshals will be overruling local marshals. If someone shows up at your door to evict you for nonpayment in the five boroughs, the city has urged New Yorkers not to comply, and to call the Department of Investigations at 212-825-5953.
Of all the federal agencies, why is the CDC doing this?
The CDC framed the moratorium not with the usual Trumpian bombast and battle language but instead as an “effective public health measure” to prevent the spread of COVID-19. That is at least partially true. Housing advocates for months have warned that a mass eviction crisis could force thousands of Americans out of their homes and into crowded shelters, accelerating the spread of the coronavirus. Tuesday’s CDC order acquiesced to those concerns and cited that “housing stability helps protect public health.”
Indeed, some entities that usually find the Trump administration appalling seemed pleasantly surprised by the ruling, if also taken aback. Ellen Davidson, staff attorney with the Civil Law Reform Unit at the Legal Aid Society, described the moratorium as “shocking but also a welcome surprise.” In a statement, New York State Senate housing chair Brian Kavanagh said he was “pleased that the federal government is beginning to realize what I and many New Yorkers have advocated since March: the simple truth that residential evictions are not safe or appropriate in the midst of this pandemic.” That “realization” comes as unemployed workers have been without enhanced federal benefits since they expired at the end of July, and as Congress has yet to reach an agreement on a further aid package.
This seems like a very different approach for this administration.
It’s worth noting that eviction stoppages are broadly popular, and Trump is way down in the polls. Often, he makes political moves almost entirely to shore up his base; this time, atypically, he seems to be looking beyond it. “I want to make it unmistakably clear that I’m protecting people from evictions,” the president said in a press release. Things are so tough out there, in other words, that Trump has been boxed into doing something right.