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Trump administration announces eviction moratorium, aiming to ensure housing crisis doesn’t further spread coronavirus

Move comes after temporary deal with Congress lapsed and millions of unemployed renters feared they could lose their homes

Houston's eviction moratorium ended in May 2020, months earlier than many major cities. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Trump administration Tuesday announced a four-month halt on eviction proceedings against cash-strapped renters, invoking federal public health laws out of concern that a national homelessness crisis could worsen the country’s coronavirus outbreak.

The new moratorium seeks to cover families experiencing financial hardship as a result of the pandemic, aiming to help as many as 40 million Americans who are already struggling to pay their monthly housing costs in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, according to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who referenced that an action was imminent earlier in the day.

The policy comes roughly a month after President Trump signed an executive order tasking the U.S. government, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with exploring ways to protect renters as talks broke down on Capitol Hill over a new round of coronavirus relief. Brian Morgenstern, a spokesman for the White House, said the goal has been to ensure that families “struggling to pay rent due to the coronavirus will not have to worry about being evicted and risk the further spreading of, or exposure to, the disease.”

But the moratorium, which was issued under the banner of the CDC on Tuesday, stops short of what some Democratic lawmakers and housing experts said is necessary. For one thing, the Trump administration did not set aside any new federal dollars for renters, who eventually will owe what may be sky-high past-due balances, or for landlords, who might face financial struggles of their own.

Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, described the new eviction policy as “long overdue and badly needed.” But, she added: “This action delays but does not prevent evictions. Congress and the White House must get back to work on negotiations to enact a covid-19 relief bill with at least $100 billion in emergency rental assistance.”

Trump says he’s ‘stopping evictions.’ Here’s why they’re still happening.

Lawmakers included a 120-day federal eviction moratorium as part of the $2 trillion Cares Act they passed in March. The protections offered an early reprieve for a more limited category of renters in federally financed buildings, as well as some homeowners, as the pandemic upended the job market, leaving millions of Americans unexpectedly out of work.

But the protections did not go as far as what some housing advocates sought by failing to provide more assistance to help with missed payments. The eviction moratorium expired at the end of July, along with other programs including the government’s expanded unemployment payments — creating the conditions for what some experts described as a massive housing crisis.

Trump is calling for another moratorium on evictions. Landlords are pushing back.

Many states simultaneously put in place their own policies protecting homeowners and renters from eviction, but those safeguards similarly began to sunset into the summer. As of Tuesday, only 17 states and the District of Columbia still have any such eviction protections for renters in place, according to Emily Benfer, a professor at Wake Forest Law who chairs the American Bar Association’s work on evictions. Evictions in the meantime have skyrocketed in states including Alabama and cities such as Tuscon, she said, though the Trump administration later reauthorized aid for some homeowners with federally backed mortgages.

“The eviction crisis is far from over, and in fact, it’s picking up speed,” she said, pointing to low-income families draining their savings and other resources to ensure they don’t lose their homes. “They are paying with their futures. They are using credit cards and taking on financial risk. … They know without it they cannot keep their families safe.”

Millions of people lost their jobs in hard-hit New England. Many fear their homes could be next.

The Trump administration’s new policy applies to Americans who make under $99,000 each year or couples who earn $198,000, including those who previously had received economic stimulus payments under the Cares Act. Under the directive, these families must prove they tried to pay their rent — and sought to take advantage of existing federal housing support aid — to be eligible for the eviction moratorium, according to senior administration officials, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.

But the Trump administration does not waive any debts that families may rack up over that period, and it explicitly leaves open the door for landlords to charge “fees, penalties or interest as a result of the failure to pay rent or other housing payment on a timely basis,” according to a draft document posted Tuesday. Landlords could even still pursue evictions in some cases, including if they have public health concerns of their own.

“For low-income renters, all this does is delay the cliff that they’ll face when the moratorium is over,” said Peggy Bailey, the vice president for housing policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “It’s good as an initial Band-Aid, but people are still going to be accruing rent-related debt.”

Some landlords quickly expressed serious reservations about the Trump administration’s actions, fearing they could be left facing financial peril as a result. Opponents could still challenge the directive in court, though no potential legal challenges surfaced immediately Tuesday.

“Not only does an eviction moratorium not address renters’ real financial needs, a protracted eviction moratorium does nothing to address the financial pressures and obligations of rental property owners,” said Doug Bibby, the president of the National Multifamily Housing Coalition, adding in a statement it meant the “stability of the entire rental housing sector is thrown into question.”