The city’s moratorium on eviction filings denies “property owners their day in court for an extended indefinite period” and therefore violates the owners Constitutional right to “regain possession of their property in a summary proceeding," the judge found.
However, Epstein pointed out that his ruling will for now only have a limited impact on the number of cases within the city limits — 458, according to the order.
“Ending the filing moratorium will not directly result in any evictions during the public health emergency,” Epstein wrote. “Nor will ending the filing moratorium automatically result in a flood of new eviction cases.”
But for those landlords who are impacted by the decision, the legal wheels can start to move again.
“The only short-term impact of the court’s ruling is that the court will schedule a hearing in these cases as soon as it reasonably can, property owners will have to try to prove their case, and defendants will be able to raise any defense or seek any relief to which they are entitled,” the ruling stated. “For these families, both the eviction and filing moratoriums do not solve the underlying problem — the moratoriums only delay the day of reckoning that they face.”
Since March, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the D.C. Council have taken a number of steps to shield District tenants from losing their homes in the middle of a fast-spreading virus. In May, Bowser signed into law a provision banning eviction filings for 60 days after the state of emergency lifts. The state of emergency is scheduled to end Dec. 31, but the D.C. Council on Tuesday voted to give the mayor the authority to extend it to March 31.
More than 131,000 D.C. renters were projected to possibly face eviction due to the virus’s economic fallout, according to an analysis by the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program and the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project — projections that did not come true due to the city’s actions.
But as the months have dragged on, housing providers have become increasingly vocal about the pressure the measures have put on their own finances. Five landlords eventually challenged the legality of the moratorium on filing an eviction and a second moratorium on evicting tenants during the course of a state of emergency.
“The issue here, however, is whether the moratorium on the filing of eviction cases promotes this compelling interest [controlling the pandemic by stopping evictions] enough to justify the substantial restriction on property owners’ access to the courts during a time when evictions themselves are prohibited," the judge wrote. “The District has not shown that it does.”
According to Aaron Sokolow, an attorney representing landlords in the case, the ruling spares “property owners from an otherwise bleak situation where there is nothing they could do.”
Housing advocates, however, worry the decision will weaken the city’s eviction’s protections.
“This ruling definitely allows some number of cases to move forward notwithstanding other protections,” said Beth Mellen, the supervising attorney of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia’s Housing Law Unit. “We are concerned we are going to see landlords now challenge other parts of the law.”