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Biden administration eyes extended ban on renter evictions as stimulus delays, landlord lawsuits loom

President Biden speaks to journalists Sunday after returning to the White House from Camp David. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

The Biden administration is weighing whether to extend a soon-expiring federal policy that prohibits landlords from evicting their cash-strapped tenants, as the U.S. government seeks to buy more time for an estimated 10 million families who have fallen behind on their rent.

The extension under discussion could run at least through July, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a decision that isn’t yet final. Without it, the federal eviction ban is set to lapse in seven days, opening the door for some Americans to be removed from their homes.

The issue has taken on fresh urgency at a time when the federal government is racing to distribute roughly $47 billion in new coronavirus relief to families still struggling to pay off back-due rent and ever-mounting utility bills. Lawmakers authorized roughly half of the aid as part of the stimulus adopted in December, and the rest through the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that Biden signed into law this month — yet most of the money has not reached those who need it most as a result of implementation delays.

Lawmakers acknowledge the federal eviction moratorium isn’t perfect, housing advocates fear fast-moving lawsuits could impede its future, and some Biden administration officials have even questioned whether the federal government has the authority to extend it. But there is nonetheless broad agreement that a continuation of the federal eviction ban is essential to prevent millions of people from being forced onto the streets as they await financial assistance.

“We’ve discovered that affordable housing is the single most effective form of personal protective equipment one can have,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who has sponsored legislation protecting renters from eviction. “If we suddenly threw people out of their homes, and onto the streets and into other people’s homes … it would accelerate covid.”

Landlords, lobbyists launch legal war against Trump’s eviction moratorium, aiming to unwind renter protections

The Biden administration is also discussing some limited, additional policy tweaks to the moratorium, the two people familiar with the matter said. That includes a new education campaign to inform renters that the policy exists, as the government seeks to address a major knowledge gap that arose under President Donald Trump when he announced the eviction ban last year, according to one of the sources.

The Biden administration also has weighed taking a greater role in enforcing the moratorium against landlords who refuse to honor it, the person added. Other, more robust changes seem unlikely, reflecting housing experts’ belief that Congress should adopt a more sweeping solution.

The White House declined to comment.

Trump first issued the eviction protections last year, seeking to halt a wave of court-ordered removals out of concern that it could worsen the spread of the coronavirus if families were left homeless or forced into cramped living conditions. The administration did so by invoking federal public-health laws, a move that put the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the unexpected position of overseeing the eviction ban. The policy covers individuals who earn no more than $99,000, and couples who make no more than $198,000, who cannot make full or partial rent payments as a result of economic hardship during the pandemic.

Housing experts lauded the policy as a critical financial lifeline, citing estimates that showed in December that Americans faced an estimated $70 billion in unpaid rent dating back to the start of the pandemic. Nearly 1 in 5 renters still say they are behind on their monthly balances, according to a survey by the Census Bureau released last week, which found that people of color have borne the brunt of the hardship.

“It is extremely important to extend this because so many people are living on the edge,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who has written and endorsed proposals to help renters since the pandemic began.

But the implementation of the federal eviction ban at times has been inconsistent. Some renters aren’t aware the moratorium exists, while others who have sought to take advantage of it have encountered stiff opposition from landlords that have filed eviction proceedings against them anyway. Nationally, landlord groups also have filed a dizzying array of lawsuits challenging the CDC’s orders, arguing that they are unconstitutional.

“Generally speaking, the moratorium has done what it is intended to do,” said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. But, she acknowledged, “it has a lot of flaws and shortcomings that undermine its public-health purpose and have allowed an alarming number of evictions to proceed.”

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

Top Biden administration officials largely have been mum about the extension. “The CDC is in the process of trying to determine what is the appropriate way forward,” Marcia L. Fudge, the administration’s new secretary of housing and urban development, said at a White House media briefing last week.

Behind the scenes, though, some CDC officials have expressed trepidation about the policy. The CDC is reluctant to have the administration use the public health agency’s authority to extend the moratorium again, according to a federal health official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share an ongoing policy debate. The CDC’s reservations date back to last year, when the White House under Trump first announced the policy, two sources said.

“The previous administration used CDC’s authority to put this program in place in a way that no one at the agency thought it had the authority to do,” said one of the officials, adding that the debate around the most recent extension has been fierce.

But the Biden administration has not identified another agency that might be a better steward of the policy, the two sources said, putting the CDC on track to approve another extension. In the meantime, federal judges in Texas and Ohio have sided with property owners and ruled the order unconstitutional over the past two months, though other courts previously have ruled in favor of the CDC.

Jason McDonald, a spokesman for the CDC, said this week that there “has not been a decision made to extend the eviction moratorium.”

What’s in the House’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus plan

The debate over the extension comes weeks after lawmakers adopted another tranche of coronavirus aid under the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which set aside $25 billion to help renters catch up on their past-due balances. The measure ultimately did not include a more robust, congressionally authorized eviction moratorium because lawmakers relied on a special budget maneuver known as reconciliation to pass it.

It will take some time to get that new assistance to families, prompting Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, to call on the administration to authorize another eviction ban as a stopgap measure “as these funds are being sent out and we work to get shots in arms.”

“To protect renters and get the virus under control,” he continued in a statement, “the Administration should extend the moratorium immediately, and states and localities must work to get this money out to renters quickly.”