The eviction moratorium was a desperate, humane measure the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention imposed in September on shaky legal authority. The Supreme Court upheld it only through the end of last month. Mr. Biden announced Monday that “our team is redoubling efforts to identify all available legal authorities to provide necessary protections,” but neither he nor the CDC can ignore clear instructions from the nation’s highest court. Meanwhile, some 6.5 million households owe back rent.
The best idea all along was not an eviction moratorium but rental assistance, so that hard-hit tenants could keep their homes and landlords, who still have to service their properties, could also get a lifeline. In fact, Congress approved $47 billion worth of such assistance in successive covid-19 aid bills. The eviction moratorium lasted long enough for states to begin handing out this money. The transition from moratorium to rental assistance should have been smooth. It has instead been devastatingly inefficient: States have distributed only about $3 billion of the $47 billion.
Most states have not distributed rental aid since the 2008-2009 recession, so they have had to construct new bureaucracy to dole out assistance. Income verification and other hassles lengthen approval times. Some renters and landlords do not even know assistance is available. The result is that some states have distributed only single-digit percentages of their allotted aid, with application wait times reaching 60 days in some places.
State-level moratoriums still cover about a third of renters. Laggard states that lack such restrictions should consider emergency policies to cover desperate people, up to and including temporary state-level eviction moratoriums, until state officials prove they can effectively distribute federal money. Philadelphia, for example, requires landlords to apply for federal aid on their tenants’ behalf before they can file to evict them. The Treasury Department has relaxed some federal aid application guidelines; states should follow the federal government’s lead in streamlining the process.
Landlords themselves should use eviction as a last resort; if their renters obtain federal aid, landlords are more likely to recover back rent, and they would avoid the disruption of eviction. Meanwhile, judges should be flexible with renters facing evictions, especially those whose rental aid applications are still pending. The judges’ role is especially important since, as we have noted in earlier editorials, tenants in most places have no right to counsel when they are hauled into eviction court.
The pandemic has already caused enough suffering. Eviction is an eminently preventable misery, and landlords and officials should act to prevent it.