WASHINGTON — With the federal moratorium on evictions having expired over the weekend, the White House on Monday sought to limit the effect, demanding that states speed up disbursement of billions of dollars in bottled-up rental aid while pleading with local governments to enact their own extensions.
President Joe Biden — under fire from the left of his party for not extending the freeze and eager to prove he was taking action to prevent evictions — directed federal agencies to consider targeted extensions for tenants in federally subsidized housing, asked state judges to slow-walk eviction proceedings and called for a review of problems that have slowed the flow of aid.
The temporary ban on evictions, imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last fall, lapsed Saturday after a frenzied, failed effort on Capitol Hill to extend it through the end of the year, putting hundreds of thousands of tenants at risk of losing shelter.
It will take weeks for new eviction cases to work their way through state courts. But some legal aid groups and tenants organizations are already reporting a steep rise in phone calls and emails from renters who owe money to landlords and lost the protection of the federal moratorium at midnight Saturday.
Kyle Webster, a tenants lawyer in Pittsburgh, braced himself for a busy weekend, but was unprepared for the volume of phone calls that his office got from panicked, angry and confused tenants seeking help — 1,200 of them.
“It’s overwhelming, and, to be honest, we don’t know if we can actually call all of those people back,” said Webster, whose organization, ACTION-Housing, represents low-income renters in housing court in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.
The most striking difference between conversations with tenants before the moratorium lapsed and now is the length of each phone call, Webster said: In the past, people would rush off the line — now, they linger for a half-hour or more, repeatedly asking lawyers for assurance their families will not be thrown out on the street.
Landlords have long argued that eviction moratoriums violate their property rights, and deny them their most effective mechanism for dealing with problematic tenants. Last week, the country’s biggest trade group for residential landlords, the National Apartment Association, sued the federal government, claiming that the freeze cost owners around $27 billion not covered by existing aid programs.
On Monday, administration officials made it clear they could only do so much at this point, blaming sluggish implementation at the state level for the fact that the $47 billion Emergency Rental Assistance program has disbursed only $3 billion — just 7% of the total.
The pace of aid reaching tenants has increased significantly in recent months, with $1.5 billion being disbursed to 290,000 households in June. Officials said it is improving by the day.
“We expect these numbers to grow, but it will not be enough to meet the need, unless every state and locality accelerates funds to tenants,” Gene Sperling, who is overseeing pandemic relief efforts for Biden, told reporters at the White House.
“There is no place to hide for any state or locality failing to accelerate their emergency rental assistance funds,” he said.
Sperling also pressed for the extension of existing local moratoriums, saying that one-third of renters nationally are already protected by state and city governments. He suggested the rise in virus cases caused by the delta variant gave localities ample justification to take bolder measures.
But many Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have called on Biden to reconsider his decision not to act unilaterally, and have expressed anger at the White House giving lawmakers only two days to ram through legislation to extend the freeze last week.
“People were promised something — help — and that has not happened,” said Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., part of a group of lawmakers and activists sleeping on the steps of the Capitol to protest the moratorium’s end. “It is unbelievable. It is shocking. It is unconscionable. It is cruel. We can’t be sitting on our hands when people are suffering.”
On Thursday, Biden administration officials punted the issue to congressional Democrats, saying that a recent Supreme Court ruling made it nearly impossible to order an extension without jeopardizing the right of the executive branch to implement emergency policies during public health crises.
Some Democrats rejected that argument, saying the White House could have acted and then fought the issue out in court again.
“I wish that the president, the CDC would have gone forward and extended the moratorium,” said Rep. Maxine Waters, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, in an interview Monday. “They have the power to do that. I think he should have gone in and he should have done it, and let the chips fall where they may.”
Over the weekend, Biden called Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director and the official with the authority to extend the freeze, to explore the possibility of limiting an extension to areas hit especially hard by the delta variant, but was told that was not possible.
“Everybody” in the West Wing wanted to extend the moratorium, Sperling said in an interview. “But what was clear from the legal analysis was that we had already litigated this issue all the way to the Supreme Court.”
The White House also called on local courts to help slow the pace of evictions and, in at least one case, they obliged: On Sunday, a state judge in Georgia signed an emergency judicial order imposing a moratorium on evictions for 60 days in DeKalb County, in the Atlanta area.
Over the past two days, administration officials have worked the phones, appealing to the states to find ways to slow landlords from evicting renters.
But, around the country, the shifting of the power balance from tenant to landlord has upended a volatile affordable housing market that is increasingly shutting out working-class renters and the poor.
Some lawyers said they aren’t necessarily expecting a deluge of new cases to hit at once, but predict a steady uptick as the weeks go by — with wide variations based on the state, or even the county, where a renter lives.
“I was in court in Mecklenburg County this morning and the judges were taking eviction cases today,” said Isaac Sturgill, a housing attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina. “But it can look a lot different depending what county you are in.”
In Ohio, housing court judges in some counties have long acted as if the CDC moratorium never even happened. In Cincinnati, some judges this spring began allowing landlords to evict tenants for failing to pay rent, after a federal judge ruled that the CDC moratorium was unconstitutional.
Those judges only began to pause the evictions after the Supreme Court in June rejected a challenge from landlords to the moratorium.
“Evictions have been proceeding on and off for a couple of months,” said Nicholas DiNardo, managing attorney with Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio, which includes Cincinnati. He said the court dockets for evictions are rapidly filling up again, with about 75 cases a day in Cincinnati for the next three weeks.
But a chronic complaint from legal aid lawyers, and landlords alike, is that the process of applying for rental assistance is too cumbersome and that Washington underestimated the negative effect of creating a painstaking process intended to combat fraud.
In Jacksonville, Florida, there is a backlog of several thousand applications for rental assistance, which is making it difficult for other renters facing eviction to apply for help.
“Not enough thought was given to the time needed to process these application and there was not enough trained staff,” said Mary DeVries, head of the housing unit for Jacksonville Area Legal Aid.