As the Housing Crisis Explodes, the Trump Admin Is Quietly Undoing Its “Eviction Moratorium”

Following a pressure campaign from landlords and real estate groups, the Trump administration is giving landlords more leeway to evict tenants.

Rebecca Burns

A banner against renters eviction reading no job, no rent is displayed on a controlled rent building in Washington, DC on August 9, 2020. ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has qui­et­ly walked back fed­er­al pro­tec­tions for renters, giv­ing prop­er­ty own­ers more lee­way to pur­sue evic­tion cases.

Last month, the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol (CDC) released an unprece­dent­ed order halt­ing most res­i­den­tial evic­tions in order to stop the spread of Covid-19. But in new guid­ance released Fri­day, the agency clar­i­fied that evic­tion” just means phys­i­cal removal. Land­lords are still free to take ten­ants to court to try to get them to pay up, and even secure evic­tion judge­ments that can be car­ried out as soon as the CDC’s order expires Jan­u­ary 1

The Order is not intend­ed to ter­mi­nate or sus­pend the oper­a­tions of any state or local court. Nor is it intend­ed to pre­vent land­lords from start­ing evic­tion pro­ceed­ings, pro­vid­ed that the actu­al evic­tion of a cov­ered per­son for non-pay­ment of rent does NOT take place dur­ing the peri­od of the Order,” reads a Fre­quent­ly Asked Ques­tions” post­ed on the CDC’s website. 

The agency’s evic­tion ban ini­tial­ly appeared to pro­hib­it land­lords from fil­ing evic­tion cas­es in court, which is often used as an intim­i­da­tion tac­tic against ten­ants and can leave a black mark on their records. 

The appar­ent weak­en­ing of the order fol­lowed a pres­sure cam­paign by land­lords and real-estate trade groups nation­wide, which have filed more than 25 sep­a­rate law­suits since the fed­er­al mora­to­ri­um took effect Sep­tem­ber 4

One suit, filed Sep­tem­ber 8 by a Vir­ginia land­lord in U.S. dis­trict court, argues that the CDC’s actions are unprece­dent­ed in our his­to­ry and are an affront to core con­sti­tu­tion­al lim­its on fed­er­al pow­er.” The case was lat­er joined by the Nation­al Apart­ment Asso­ci­a­tion and is sup­port­ed by the Charles Koch-backed New Civ­il Lib­er­ties Alliance, as report­ed in the Wash­ing­ton Post. A response in the suit, filed Octo­ber 2 by attor­neys for the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, con­tend­ed that noth­ing in the order pre­vents land­lords from ini­ti­at­ing evic­tion suits in court — a posi­tion now affirmed in the CDC’s offi­cial guidance. 

The guid­ance released Fri­day also spec­i­fies that land­lords have no oblig­a­tion to inform ten­ants of the CDC’s order, which advo­cates wor­ry will cre­ate an even more unequal play­ing field. To be pro­tect­ed under the order, ten­ants must make a dec­la­ra­tion to their land­lord that they’ve made their best effort to pay rent and obtain gov­ern­ment assis­tance, among oth­er require­ments. But it’s unclear how most ten­ants would know to exer­cise the protection. 

Land­lords often belong to asso­ci­a­tions that keep them up-to-date with any changes to the law they need to know about, but it’s not like there’s a ten­ant e‑mail list,” said Pam Bridge, direc­tor of Lit­i­ga­tion and Advo­ca­cy at Com­mu­ni­ty Legal Ser­vices, a Phoenix-based non­prof­it law firm. 

Bridge also not­ed that land­lords will now be express­ly per­mit­ted to chal­lenge the truth­ful­ness” of a tenant’s dec­la­ra­tion in court, which could sub­ject them to a stan­dard of evi­dence that’s dif­fi­cult to meet. Doc­u­men­ta­tion that ten­ants have tried to obtain rental assis­tance, for exam­ple, may be hard to come giv­en that many local gov­ern­ments have award­ed this assis­tance via lot­ter­ies where the num­ber of appli­cants quick­ly over­whelm phone lines or online systems. 

It con­cerns me that this could end up being a sub­jec­tive deci­sion by judges, with every judge han­dling this dif­fer­ent­ly,” said Bridge. 

Even pri­or to the new guid­ance, three nation­al hous­ing rights groups — the Cen­ter for Pop­u­lar Democ­ra­cy, Right to the City Alliance and People’s Action — said dur­ing a press con­fer­ence last week that high­ly uneven enforce­ment of the mora­to­ri­um had cre­at­ed mass con­fu­sion” and allowed thou­sands of evic­tions to pro­ceed in appar­ent vio­la­tion of the CDC’s order. 

Emi­ly Brock­man, a moth­er of a 5‑month-old in Lex­ing­ton, Ken­tucky, recount­ed how she end­ed up in court for unpaid rent in Sep­tem­ber after los­ing her job as a result of the pan­dem­ic. Brock­man said that she had attempt­ed to use the CDC’s dec­la­ra­tion to stave off eviction. 

[The judge] just looked at my land­lord and said, What would you like to do?’ Of course they said they would like to move for­ward with the evic­tion,” she recalled dur­ing the press conference. 

Every­thing hap­pened so fast. I was shocked. I had assumed I was going to be safe under the CDC guide­lines because I matched per­fect­ly,” Brock­man continued.

Brock­man con­nect­ed with an attor­ney through the Lex­ing­ton Hous­ing Jus­tice Col­lec­tive and, on the day the sher­iff was sup­posed to show up at her house to evict her, received word that she had been grant­ed anoth­er hear­ing in appeals court. The evic­tion order was tem­porar­i­ly over­turned, and Brock­man is now wait­ing for anoth­er court date in Jan­u­ary, after the mora­to­ri­um expires. 

But advo­cates wor­ry that the fur­ther weak­en­ing of fed­er­al pro­tec­tions could leave vul­ner­a­ble renters exposed even soon­er. The U.S. Cen­sus Bureau’s most recent House­hold Pulse sur­vey found that of 58 mil­lion house­holds, rough­ly one-quar­ter had no or only slight con­fi­dence in their abil­i­ty to pay Novem­ber rent. The pos­si­bil­i­ty of fed­er­al rent and mort­gage assis­tance is tied up in nego­ti­a­tions over anoth­er Covid-19 relief pack­age, and the $60 bil­lion cur­rent­ly on the table is far below the $100 bil­lion that hous­ing groups esti­mat­ed was nec­es­sary to help just the low­est-income house­holds avoid eviction. 

Mean­while, local pro­tec­tions for evic­tion are rapid­ly expir­ing. In Mia­mi-Dade coun­ty, where unem­ploy­ment claims are ris­ing again and a state evic­tion mora­to­ri­um expired at the end of Sep­tem­ber, evic­tion fil­ings have near­ly returned to their pre-pan­dem­ic rate, accord­ing to Alana Greer, direc­tor of the legal non­prof­it Com­mu­ni­ty Jus­tice Project.

Right now, the CDC order is the last line of defense,” she said.

Rebec­ca Burns is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive reporter whose work has appeared in The Baf­fler, the Chica­go Read­er, The Inter­cept and oth­er out­lets. She is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rejburns.
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