The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), which represents developers, contractors and others in the industry, became one of the first to tease potential legal action. It said Wednesday its members already had asked the trade group’s leadership to consider filing a lawsuit, prompting the organization to convene its lawyers to study whether and how they can bring such a case.
“We understand what the president is trying to accomplish. I don’t think there’s anybody in America that doesn’t sympathize with an effort to keep Americans in their apartments,” said Jerry Howard, the chief executive of the NAHB.
But Howard stressed that landlords — without financial help from Congress — simply “can’t afford” to enact the president’s moratorium. They said they are now “looking at our legal options,” which could involve trying to seek compensation for carrying out the directive.
It is unclear how a legal challenge could play out or whether it will even be filed. But it could have vast implications for roughly 40 million people who are struggling to pay their monthly rent as a result of the pandemic. Absent President Trump’s order, these renters stood to face eviction in most states after earlier federal protections expired at the end of July.
When it issued the policy Tuesday, the Trump administration invoked federal public health laws in what it described as an attempt to help families in need while slowing the spread of a pandemic that has already killed more than 180,000 Americans. White House officials maintain that a housing crisis could worsen the country’s outbreak if people are forced out of their homes and into cramped or otherwise unsafe conditions, given the fact that the novel coronavirus spreads easily among people in close contact.
The White House declined to comment Wednesday.
The early political and legal wrangling could add even more urgency to the congressional war over another round of relief. Democrats and Republicans failed to reach an agreement this summer, and assistance programs for the unemployed and renters expired at the end of July. The negotiations are expected to resume this month ahead of a government funding deadline before Oct. 1.
Democrats previously had hoped to halt evictions during the pandemic while setting aside roughly $100 billion in rental assistance for families. The proposal, included as part of the stimulus bill House lawmakers approved in May, sought to address the fact that pausing evictions alone would not do enough to help families once rents became due — leaving many with a massive bill they would have no way to afford. Senate Republicans, however, opted against including significant new rental assistance as part of the bill that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) put forward in July. A modified version of the proposal could come before the full chamber next week.
For now, Trump’s order puts in place an eviction moratorium for individuals who make under $99,000 a year, couples that make under $198,000 a year, or others who received stimulus payments under the Cares Act adopted earlier in the pandemic. Renters must swear under criminal penalty they have done everything in their power to pay rent and obtain other assistance before taking advantage of the new eviction protections.
Otherwise, the policy makes clear that the federal government isn’t setting aside any new money to cover balances that could come due in 2021. Instead, senior administration officials pointed to existing resources doled out by the federal government to cities and states as a way to help renters and landlords in financial need.
Advocates for low-income families and other Americans struggling to afford their housing costs praised the Trump administration for its approach, which is broader in scope than what Congress enacted earlier in the pandemic. But they still found common cause with groups representing landlords and property managers on the need for additional money from Washington. The absence of new federal support creates headaches not only for families in need but for those who own or oversee rental dwellings, particularly because they face their own costs and mortgages they must pay, they said.
The National Multifamily Housing Council, which represents owners of apartment buildings, acknowledged Wednesday it is “beginning to look into the legality of this.” But Jim Lapides, a spokesman for the group, stressed that the “real solution is rental assistance” to help families and landlords alike.
“It is far better to focus on ensuring renters can pay the rent than to try and come up with policies like eviction moratoriums that do not address the root cause and put housing providers at financial risk,” he said in a statement.