Eviction Ban Survives Landlords’ Challenge in Win for Biden
(Bloomberg) -- A temporary U.S. ban on evictions in parts of the country hit hard by the pandemic can remain in place, a federal judge in Washington ruled, a victory for the Biden administration’s efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
In a ruling on Friday, U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich rejected a plea by landlord groups to block the new eviction moratorium established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even as she voiced concerns over the legality of the policy. The decision means the ban, set to last until Oct. 3, can stay in place for now, though it will face further court challenges from landlords.
Friedrich, a critic of the moratorium, wrote that she was forced to keep the freeze in place because of a ruling by the U.S. appeals court in Washington that allowed a previous nationwide version of the policy to stand.
While she believes the moratorium is legally dubious, she wrote, “the court’s hands are tied.”
Fight Goes On
The White House applauded the ruling.
“Throughout the pandemic, preventing evictions and keeping people in their homes has been a proven way of slowing the spread of Covid-19,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement. “We are pleased that the district court left the moratorium in place, though we are aware that further proceedings in this case are likely.”
Psaki also urged state and local officials to move faster in distributing almost $47 billion in emergency rental assistance as the legal wrangling over the moratorium continues. Just 12% of the first $25 billion Congress allocated had made its way to eligible households in the first half of the year, Treasury Department data show, though the pace has been accelerating, with more than $1.5 billion doled out in June alone.
Landlords are certain to continue fighting the moratorium, a fresh battle that will likely reach the Supreme Court. The groups that challenged the ban, the Alabama Association of Realtors and the Georgia Association of Realtors, will file an appeal “in short order,” said a spokesman for the plaintiffs, Patrick Newton.
“This motion was denied on technical, procedural grounds, but the court confirmed its opinion that the CDC is unlikely to succeed on the merits,” Newton said.
The pandemic has been costly for landlords: About 5.6 million renters, or 13% of the U.S. total, were behind on payments in June, according to Moody’s Analytics estimates, and tenants owed a total of about $24 billion.
The litigation over the CDC moratorium is just one strand of a complex legal and public policy battle over evictions during the pandemic. While the new federal moratorium covers about 90% of U.S. renters, some of the country’s most populous cities and states have passed their own rules to prevent evictions, which have also drawn legal challenges. In a ruling on Thursday, the Supreme Court blocked part of a New York law designed to protect renters from eviction.
The ruling on Friday marks the latest twist in a months-long legal saga over how far the federal government can go to protect renters from losing their homes during a public health crisis that has put evicted tenants at risk of getting sick and infecting others.
Earlier this year, Friedrich blocked the nationwide version of the eviction ban, ruling that it exceeded the government’s authority. But the appeals court in Washington put that order on hold, finding that the CDC’s moratorium, begun under Republican president Donald Trump, would likely withstand further legal scrutiny.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that the eviction ban could continue until its expiration date at the end of July. That ruling came with a caveat, however. In a brief opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who cast the pivotal vote, wrote that any extension would require legislative action. Congress failed to act, and the earlier ban expired.
The new, Democratic administration of Joe Biden initially expressed reluctance to continue the moratorium, given the likelihood that it would be overturned. That view drew widespread criticism from Democrats who argued the ban was needed to protect renters as Covid cases started rising again. Representative Cori Bush of Missouri camped outside the Capitol to protest the lapse of the moratorium, as renter advocacy groups lobbied the administration to act.
On Aug. 3, the CDC issued a new, limited version of the ban that applied only to U.S. counties where the spread of the virus is most severe. The agency said it wanted to buy more time to increase vaccination rates and allow local governments to distribute the rental assistance funds to people who have fallen behind on their payments. A day after the CDC announced the new ban, the landlord groups challenged it in court in Washington, seizing on Kavanaugh’s comments in the Supreme Court case.
“In substance and effect, the CDC’s latest action is an extension of the same unlawful ban on evictions that has been in effect since September 2020,” they said in their lawsuit.
The Kavanaugh Factor
The five justices who let the original version of the moratorium stand in June didn’t outline their reasoning in a majority opinion. But in his brief concurring opinion, Kavanaugh said he voted to keep the freeze in place only because it was about to expire, emphasizing that only Congress had the authority to extend it.
In their challenge to the new moratorium, the landlord groups argued that Friedrich could simply add Kavanaugh to the four justices who voted against the nationwide ban and conclude that the Supreme Court is certain to block the administration’s new eviction freeze.
Friedrich rejected that logic. While Kavanaugh’s comment suggests the ban will be overturned eventually, she said in her ruling, “the Supreme Court did not issue a controlling opinion in this case.”
“The votes of dissenting justices may not be combined with that of a concurring justice to create binding law,” she wrote.
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