A federal judge on Wednesday struck down an emergency ban on most evictions in the United States, signaling that the end may be drawing near for protections that have kept many renters in their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ruling in a lawsuit brought by real estate industry groups, US District Judge Dabney Friedrich wrote that the Centers for Disease Control had overstepped its authority by ordering a halt to most evictions during the COVID-19 emergency. The ban was launched in September by the Trump administration, and extended in January by President Biden.
Biden’s administration said it plans to appeal Wednesday’s decision, and asked that the ruling — which applies nationwide — be put on hold until the case is heard. But it’s the latest in a string of decisions that chip away at eviction bans that have protected renters, and frustrated landlords, for more than a year.
What the moratorium’s end would mean in Massachusetts was not immediately clear. The Baker administration has pumped money into rent relief programs since the state’s eviction ban ended in October, doling out an average of nearly $5,000 apiece to almost 20,000 households through the end of March. It has also slowed the court proceedings that the state requires before an eviction, and beefed up mediation services. All that has kept new eviction cases relatively low — by pre-pandemic standards — in the months since. Still, roughly 11,000 new cases have been filed since October, according to state court data.
Housing advocates argue the state’s rental aid programs are too hard to use and many people fall through the cracks, sometimes because landlords won’t cooperate. The federal moratorium — while weaker in several ways than the ban Massachusetts had in place last summer — provided an extra layer of protection, said Andrea Park, a staff attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.
“It’s imperfect for sure,” Park said. “But for the people who it’s helping, it’s really a big deal.”
Still, Park acknowledged that a more permanent solution to evictions is needed.
On that, Richard Vetstein agrees. Vetstein represented Massachusetts landlords who sued last summer to overturn the state ban on the grounds that it did nothing to compensate them when tenants couldn’t pay rent. While the case was pending, the state chose not to extend the moratorium when it ended in October. Vetstein predicted a similar fate would befall the federal moratorium, currently set to expire June 30.
“I thought maybe [President] Biden would extend it through the end of the summer but now I’m not so sure,” Vetstein said. “In light of this and the other rulings against it, he may just let it go. I hope so.”
That, however, would put even more pressure on Massachusetts to fend off evictions while the state continues to build its way back out of the pandemic. The Baker administration, bolstered by federal COVID-19 relief funds, still has months’ worth of funding available for its rental aid programs, and has increased the amount a household can receive several times. And Beacon Hill lawmakers last year tucked language into the state budget that blocks eviction cases on tenants who have applications pending for rental relief — a nod to backlogs that last summer and fall had people waiting months for help.
“We are obviously disappointed in today’s ruling,” said Chris Norris, executive director of Metro Housing Boston, which administers the state’s Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program throughout much of Greater Boston. “We will redouble our efforts to provide funding to pay arrears and we encourage people to apply now. Massachusetts law still protects people if they have an emergency rental assistance application in process.”
Still, piecing together rental aid can be a lengthy, sometimes painstaking process, and the federal moratorium has bought time for counselors working on the front lines, as well as for the families they serve. They knew it would end, said Laura Rosi, CEO of Housing Families, a homelessness-prevention agency in Malden. Now that end looks imminent.
“The flow of cases is so heavy right now as it is,” she said. “This is just going to increase the urgency.”