Federal Judge Tosses Nationwide Evictions Freeze

Woman using phone in city apartment
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A federal judge overturned a nationwide pause on evictions Wednesday in a decision that could affect millions of people who have fallen behind on their rent during the pandemic.

Key Takeaways

  • A federal judge in the District of Columbia struck down a nationwide, pandemic-era moratorium on evictions.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exceeded its authority when it ordered the pause in September, the judge ruled.
  • The Department of Justice appealed the ruling, which housing advocates say could affect millions of people who are behind on their rent.

United States District Judge Dabney Friedrich said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) overreached its authority in issuing the pandemic-era moratorium, according to the 20-page ruling issued in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Wednesday, the first to address the ban on a nationwide basis. The decision agreed with a collection of landlords and realtor trade groups who initiated the case against the eviction pause, which prevents landlords from removing tenants from their homes even if they are past due on rent.

“The question for the Court is a narrow one: Does the Public Health Service Act grant the CDC the legal authority to impose a nationwide eviction moratorium?” Friedrich wrote in her decision. “It does not.”

The Department of Justice (DOJ) immediately appealed the ruling and sought an emergency stay of the order, saying evictions could worsen the spread of COVID-19. One study submitted in January to the National Bureau of Economic Research argued for the usefulness of such eviction freezes as a tool to fight the pandemic, estimating that had the federal government adopted a nationwide policy from the pandemic’s outset through the end of November 2020, COVID-19 infections in that span could have been reduced by 14.2% and deaths cut by 40.7%.

Landlords and trade groups like the National Association of Realtors (NAR) have argued the evictions freeze makes it harder for property owners to collect rent from tenants and pay their own bills. NAR has said rental assistance, like the nearly $50 billion in funds set aside by relief packages passed in December and March, would be a fairer option to ensure the needs of both tenants and landlords.

“This decision prevents two crises—one for tenants, and one for mom-and-pop housing providers who do not have a reprieve from their bills,” NAR president Charlie Oppler said in a statement about the Wednesday ruling. “With rental assistance secured, the economy growing, and unemployment rates falling, there is no need to continue a blanket, nationwide eviction ban. With this safety net firmly in place, the market needs a return to normalcy and stability."

Millions of Renters at Risk

Housing advocates, meanwhile, have worried that millions of people could lose their residence without an eviction pause. In late March, there were 10.7 million adults living in rental housing who were behind on their rent, according to an estimate by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank. That’s 15% of adult renters in the U.S.

“The Biden administration should continue to vigorously defend and enforce the moratorium, at least until emergency rental assistance provided by Congress reaches the renters who need it to remain stably housed,” National Low Income Housing Coalition President and CEO Diane Yentel said in a statement.

The CDC order has been subject to several other legal challenges this year, with federal judges in Ohio and Texas also ruling against the eviction pause. But their decisions applied only to the plaintiffs in the cases and did not prevent the moratorium from standing elsewhere, according to the DOJ.

The CDC first issued the nationwide pause in September. The freeze has been extended several times, most recently until June 30, in an attempt to keep people housed during the pandemic and limit the spread of the virus. Previously, the federal government had issued a moratorium with the first relief package last March that paused evictions in properties that participated in federal assistance programs or were subject to federally backed loans. That pause ended in July.