Amid intense pressure from progressive members of Congress, the Biden administration on Tuesday renewed a federal ban on evictions for renters at risk of losing their housing, with most of Massachusetts covered by the new order.
Citing the quick spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late Tuesday announced a new 60-day federal moratorium on evictions in counties where the cases are again at elevated levels. Currently, that includes all of Massachusetts, except for Franklin and Hampshire Counties.
The order essentially extends a measure enacted by the CDC in September that prohibits evictions of many renters who lost income due to the pandemic and would face homelessness if evicted. Housing advocates credit that moratorium with helping to keep millions of Americans in their homes.
But it faced mounting legal challenges — and a skeptical Supreme Court — and expired on Sunday, while states struggle to deliver almost $47 billion in rental assistance Congress previously allocated.
Now lawmakers, rental-aid agencies, and tenants will get until early October to sort it out. Local advocates said they were glad for the extra time, but worry that it will amount to another short-term solution to a long-running crisis.
“It’s a really important stopgap,” said Mike Leyba, codirector of City Life Vida Urbana, a tenants rights group in Boston. “It’s good protection. But what people really need is stability.”
Leyba noted that soon after the pandemic started in March 2020, Massachusetts passed the strongest eviction ban in the country, effectively shutting down housing courts for all but emergency evictions. By the time that ban ended in October 2020, the CDC moratorium was in place. That, along with beefed-up rent relief programs, have kept eviction rates in the state well below pre-pandemic levels — about 200 new cases per week in recent months, according to state courts data.
After some early problems, state rent relief programs have ramped up. As of June 30, Massachusetts had doled out $191 million in assistance to more than 32,000 households and their landlords. There are also local programs in Boston and other cities statewide providing assistance. And, Massachusetts lawmakers also passed a measure preventing the eviction of anyone who has a pending application for rent relief.
As the federal moratorium drew to a close, the state measures gave housing advocates here hope that Massachusetts would be spared the worst of a wave of evictions that could affect millions of renters around the country.
The debate shifted to Washington, D.C., where last week first-term Representative Cori Bush, a Democrat from St. Louis, led a weekend vigil on the steps of the Capitol to pressure the Biden administration to extend the moratorium. Bush was at times joined by Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley, and other high-profile progressive Democrats, revealing something of a standoff between the White House and congressional leaders over who might address the situation.
On Tuesday, Biden administration officials indicated they believed the COVID-19 surge sparked by the Delta variant justified reinstating an eviction ban in counties with “substantial” or “high” rates of infection. They noted research that tied the spread of the disease to overcrowded housing and warned that those evicted often move in with friends or relatives.
Currently, most of the country would be subject to the ban, though the moratorium would end in any county where infections fall substantially for 14 consecutive days.
Still, landlord groups remain strongly opposed to a moratorium, and Biden’s plan will almost certainly face legal challenges. The National Apartment Association last week sued the federal government, saying landlords would still be owed some $26 billion due to the eviction moratorium even if all federal rental relief is paid. And on Tuesday evening, the group criticized the Biden administration for enacting another moratorium.
”The eviction moratorium is an unfunded government mandate that forces housing providers to deliver a costly service without compensation and saddles renters with insurmountable debt,” the association said in a tweet.
In late June, the Supreme Court upheld the previous moratorium on a 5-4 vote. Justice Brett Kavanaugh sided with the majority, but indicated that he would oppose a further extension without “clear and specific congressional authorization.” Senate Republicans, whose votes would be key to passing any new measure, have signaled little support.
In remarks to reporters Tuesday afternoon, Biden acknowledged the new moratorium may not stand up in court. Even so, he said it would buy the federal and state governments much needed time to get relief funds to tenants.
“At a minimum, by the time it gets litigated, it will probably give some additional time while we’re getting that $45 billion out to people who are, in fact, behind in the rent and don’t have the money,” the president said.
That’s something, Leyba said. But 17 months into the pandemic, she said, it would be better if Washington had moved sooner to head off such emergencies.
“Legislators need to get out of the business of dealing with these crises only at the very last minute,” he said. “This is going to cover fewer people, it’s going to create more confusion. We need to look at more holistic ways to deal with this issue.”
Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.