After the national moratorium on evictions for people who haven’t paid all of their rent during the pandemic lapsed on Saturday, the Biden administration took action on Tuesday, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issuing a more limited version until October 3.
Organizers who have been working directly with tenants at risk of eviction hailed the extension as better than nothing. But they are also ringing the alarm that it has severe shortcomings that mean many will still face the loss of their homes in a pandemic.
The previous CDC moratorium was already very leaky. First, it requires tenants to sign a declaration in order to be protected, which means they have to know about it and whether they qualify. The moratorium also only applies to people who make under $99,000 a year (or who filed jointly and make under $198,000), can’t afford their rent due to a loss of work, have made their “best efforts” to make partial payments and seek rental assistance, and who would face homelessness if evicted. Some courts have allowed landlords and their attorneys to push back and hold evidentiary hearings over whether a tenant meets all of those qualifications. Some are also allowing all of the steps leading up to a tenant actually being removed from their homes, which could push tenants to simply leave rather than go through the ordeal. Landlords are free to evict people for things other than owing back rent — and many are, refusing to renew leases or finding any lease violations they can to kick people out.
And yet, in extending the moratorium, the administration did nothing to improve the order and plug up those holes. Instead, it made it even more limited. “When Biden first took office, we were pressuring them to do a better one and they didn’t,” said Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All in New York. “This one is even weaker.” It applies only to counties considered to be at substantial or high risk of Covid transmission — the CDC defines high risk as 100 or more cases in the past seven days for every 100,000 people, or test rates at or above 10%. While at the moment, the administration estimates 90% of American renters are currently covered, parsing whether or not it applies as case counts shift could be a nearly impossible task for already under-resourced tenants at risk of eviction. “The narrower you make it, the more confusing you make it, the less likely people are going to be to enforce it themselves,” Weaver said.
Biden’s last-minute extension “is a Hail Mary,” noted Tara Raghuveer, founding director of Kansas City, Missouri-based KC Tenants. The administration delayed acting in the first place because of a warning from Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh that he would consider striking down an extension past July 31, unless Congress passed a law permitting it, and Biden has warned that the current extension is at risk of legal reprisal. Given that landscape, “it might as well be the best policy possible,” she argued. Biden could have made it apply automatically to all renters, rather than requiring renters to know about the moratorium and raise it as a defense against eviction, she said, and he could have made it cover evictions for every reason, not just nonpayment of rent.
There are more than 150 evictions scheduled in her county for this coming Thursday, she said, noting: “Most of them will continue as normal,” even with the extension.
And because the moratorium officially lapsed for three days, there are people who were removed from their homes in the intervening time. Brina, who spoke to the Washington Post, was removed from the home she’s lived in since 2015 early on Tuesday morning. “We are living paycheck to paycheck and have no place to go,” she told the paper. “Right now, we’re just trying to see if we can get a hotel for the night.”
“This moratorium is yet another band aid over a bullet wound,” Raghuveer said. “It may provide some short-term relief for some, but in a few months we will be back in the same place we were on Friday yet again.”
The administration’s stated hope is that the extension of the moratorium will give states and localities time to get federal rental assistance to tenants in need. But so far it’s been chaotic and slow going. As of the end of May, cities and states had distributed just $1.5 billion of the $46.55 billion Congress sent them. Many have been slow to set up application processes and have made the requirements overly onerous.
Organizers had already been working to get information out to tenants about their rights under the previous eviction moratorium, and they plan to continue with the new one. KC Tenants has been running an eviction hotline since last March that connects people to resources, including information about the declaration form tenants must fill out to be protected by the CDC moratorium. It dropped 25,000 pieces of literature about the moratorium at tenants’ doors over the span of four months, and volunteers have been spending 10 hours every Saturday continuing the get the word out. The organization looked at eviction dockets and sent information about the moratorium to as many addresses as it could. This coming Saturday, it will stage a “mega canvass” that will include educating people about the moratorium.
Housing Justice for All is similarly engaged in a massive outreach effort — it downloaded New York voter contact information and is sending out mass texts to tenants — but the group is focused on urging people to sign up for rental assistance. In New York, just $130,000 has been paid out so far, as of July 27. More money was supposed to flow on Tuesday, but “we haven’t heard of anything yet,” Weaver said.
But organizers also noted that there is a need, now, to pivot away from responding defensively to evictions as they crop up, and toward proactive campaigns to fix the problems that cause mass eviction in the first place. KC Tenants has launched a campaign for a “People’s Housing Trust Fund” to create municipal social housing. Housing Justice for all is focused on pushing the state to require a good cause justification for eviction and make rental assistance permanent. The Central Connecticut Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is about to launch a canvassing project starting in New Haven not just to inform tenants about their rights and the moratorium, but to survey tenants about their interest in organizing and building things like tenant associations or unions in the hope of preempting evictions.
“People are increasingly understanding that this is a long battle and we really need to lay a solid foundational groundwork in order to be effective over time,” said Stephen Poland, an organizer with the Central Connecticut DSA. “If we’re just constantly reacting we’re going to burn out.”
Organizers credit Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who camped out on the Capitol Building steps to demand action on an eviction moratorium extension, and the other lawmakers who joined her for pushing President Biden to act. But they also argued that the power of the burgeoning housing movement and tenant organizing was the wind in their sails. The extension “speaks to the strength of the housing justice movement and the organizing power that is being built,” Poland said. Before the pandemic, an eviction moratorium might have sounded like a pipe dream, he noted. Now it’s the law of the land, at least for some, and for a few more months.
The lesson of the Biden administration’s action just days after it had said it wasn’t capable of doing anything “is that when we are told something is impossible by people in power, more often than not it’s not true,” Raghuveer said.
Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing writer at The Nation. Her writing can be found in the New York Times, Time Magazine, The New Republic, the Washington Post, the New York Daily News, New York Magazine and Slate. She has also appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC and NPR. She won a 2016 Exceptional Merit in Media Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus.