Eviction Freeze Set to Lapse as Biden Housing Aid Effort Falters
A nationwide moratorium on residential evictions is set to expire on Saturday after a last-minute effort by the Biden administration to win an …
A nationwide moratorium on residential evictions is set to expire on Saturday after a last-minute effort by the Biden administration to win an extension failed, putting hundreds of thousands of tenants at risk of losing shelter, while tens of billions in federal funding intended to pay their back rent sit untapped.
The expiration was a humbling setback for President Biden, whose team has tried for months to fix a dysfunctional emergency rent relief program to help struggling renters and landlords. Running out of time and desperate to head off a possible wave of evictions, the White House abruptly shifted course on Thursday, throwing responsibility to Congress and prompting a frenzied — and ultimately unsuccessful — rescue operation by Democrats in the House on Friday.
The collapse of those efforts reflected a cascade of breakdowns in the federal government’s attempts to get states to speed housing assistance to tenants. Hampered by a lack of action by the Trump administration, which left no real plan to carry out the program, Mr. Biden’s team has struggled to build a viable federal-local funding pipeline, hindered by state governments that view the initiative as a burden and the ambivalence of many landlords.
As a result, the $47 billion Emergency Rental Assistance program, to date, disbursed only $3 billion — about 7 percent of what was supposed to be a crisis-averting infusion of cash.
Adding to the urgency, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh warned last month, when the Supreme Court allowed a one-month extension of the eviction moratorium to stand, that any further extensions would have to go through Congress. But there was little chance that Republicans on Capitol Hill would agree, and by the time White House officials asked, only two days remained before the freeze expired, angering Democratic leaders who said they had no time to build support for the move.
“Really, we only learned about this yesterday,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had publicly and privately urged senior Biden administration officials to deal with the problem themselves.
“What a devastating failure to act in a moment of crisis,” said Diane Yentel, the president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which had pressed for an extension of the moratorium. “As the Delta variant surges and our understanding of its dangers grow, the White House punts to Congress in the final 48 hours and the House leaves for summer break.”
The federal eviction moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in November, was effective, reducing by about half the number of eviction cases that normally would have been filed since last fall, according to an analysis of filings by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.
Advocates have argued it is also a public health imperative, because evictions make it harder for people to socially distance.
The lapse of the federal freeze is offset by other pro-tenant initiatives that are still in place. Many states and localities, including New York and California, have extended their own moratoriums, which should blunt some of the effect. In some places, judges, cognizant of the potential for a mass wave of displacement, have said they would slow-walk cases and make greater use of eviction diversion programs.
On Friday, several government agencies, including the Federal Housing Finance Agency, along with the Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs Departments, announced that they would extend their eviction moratoriums until Sept. 30.
Nonetheless, there is the potential for a rush of eviction filings beginning next week — in addition to the more than 450,000 eviction cases already filed in courts in the largest cities and states since the pandemic began in March 2020.
An estimated 11 million adult renters are considered seriously delinquent on their rent payment, according to a survey by the Census Bureau, but no one knows how many renters are in danger of being evicted in the near future.
Bailey Bortolin, a tenants’ lawyer who works for the Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers, said the absence of the moratorium would lead many owners to dump their backlog of eviction cases into the courts next week, prompting many renters who received an eviction notice to simply vacate their apartments rather than fight it out.
“I think what we will see on Monday is a drastic increase in eviction notices going out to people, and the vast majority won’t go through the court process,” Ms. Bortolin said.
The moratorium had been set to expire on June 30, but the White House and C.D.C., under pressure from tenants groups, extended the freeze until July 31, in the hopes of using the time to accelerate the flow of rental assistance.
A crash effort followed, led by Gene Sperling, who was appointed in March to oversee Mr. Biden’s pandemic relief efforts, including emergency rental assistance programs created by coronavirus aid laws enacted in 2020 and 2021.
Mr. Sperling, working with officials in the Treasury Department, moved to loosen application requirements and increase coordination among the state governments, legal aid lawyers, housing court officials and local nonprofits with expertise in mediating landlord-tenant disputes.
In June, 290,000 tenants received $1.5 billion in pandemic relief, according to Treasury Department statistics released last week. To date, about 600,000 tenants have been helped under the program.
But administration officials concede the improvements have not progressed quickly enough. Over the past week, Mr. Sperling; Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council; Susan Rice, Mr. Biden’s top domestic policy adviser; and Ms. Rice’s deputy on housing policy, Erika C. Poethig, made a late plea for Mr. Biden to extend the freeze, according to two people familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations.
Dana Remus, the White House counsel, expressed concerns that an extension could prompt the Supreme Court to strike down the administration’s broad use of public health laws to justify a range of federal policies, and her view prevailed, the officials said.
In a statement Friday evening, Mr. Biden sought to put the onus on local officials to provide housing aid, saying “there can be no excuse for any state or locality not accelerating funds to landlords and tenants.”
“Every state and local government must get these funds out to ensure we prevent every eviction we can,” he added.
In the past week, Wally Adeyemo, the deputy Treasury secretary overseeing the program, had sent letters to officials in several localities, including New York, warning that their share of the cash could be taken back if it was not spent by mid-September, according to two senior administration officials. The White House is especially concerned about the sluggish pace of spending in Florida.
Emily A. Benfer, a professor at Wake Forest University who specializes in health and housing law, said it was not entirely fair to blame the states, because many local governments had had to build their rental assistance programs from scratch.
It has also been difficult to gain buy-in from landlords, who are required to fill out complex financial forms and follow strict eligibility rules. Some simply do not want to, especially if they have more informal arrangements with tenants. In addition, many landlords and tenants, do not even know the aid program exists.
Big and small landlords are nearly unanimous in their disdain for the C.D.C.’s moratorium and the patchwork of state and local moratoriums that have augmented it.
“They just said ‘You cannot evict and that’s it,” said Shaker Viswanathan, 65, who owns 16 units in San Diego. “The tenants are the ones that they are trying to take care of, and not anybody else. We still have to make mortgage payments.”
If there is one point both tenants and landlords agree on, it is that gaining access to the money remains difficult, and the process must be streamlined.
“These applications are just a bear” said Zach Neumann, a lawyer who runs the Covid-19 Eviction Defense Project in Denver, which has received dozens of calls and emails from renters panicked by the end of the freeze. “It adds a ton of time onto the process and that increases the risk for tenants.”
Evictions can be personal crises for all involved — so traumatic, in fact, that many tenants will often leave without resisting just to avoid the ordeal, according to marshals and sheriffs responsible for showing up at people’s doors, hauling out their belongings and locking them out.
Kristen Randall, a constable who oversees evictions in the Tucson area, has been reaching out to people on both sides to figure out what happens next.
It is a mixed, cloudy picture. Some landlords who are waiting for tenants to get rental assistance are in no rush to evict. Others are planning to take legal action next week to enforce judgments against tenants they have already taken to court.
Ms. Randall spent part of Friday visiting renters who faced imminent eviction.
“It has been an emotional day,” she said.
Ms. Randall repeated what she has been telling those tenants: “When you leave on your own, it is better than me showing up and locking you out.”
Ron Lieber contributed reporting.