BOSTON – Housing advocates say the Trump administration's surprise national moratorium on evictions only delays a wave of crushing debt and homelessness, and an attorney representing landlords questions whether the measure is aimed at voters ahead of the November election.
The White House announced Tuesday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would act under its broad powers to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The measure would forbid landlords from evicting anyone for failure to pay rent, providing the renter meets four criteria.
Critics call it everything from an empty stall tactic to an outright political ploy.
“My first reaction was, 'Thank God,'" said Matthew Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center in Baltimore. But he noted that tenants will be expected to repay their rent when the moratorium expires on Jan. 1, and without some kind of rental assistance, “we are just going to be kicking the can down the road.”
Richard Vetstein, the lead attorney representing landlords who are challenging an eviction moratorium in Massachusetts, called the CDC order “convoluted" and poorly drafted.
“It’s a pretty blatant political play by Trump in an election year,” Vetstein said. “It purports to apply nationwide to every residential situation for nonpayment of rent, so that would be many, many millions of rental properties.”
The move is a good first step, said Bill Faith, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio. But the order just “puts the problem on pause.”
“In January, when this would cease to be in place, all of those tenants would still owe all of the rent they owed to start with,” Faith said. "If they are covered by the moratorium and don’t pay what rent they can pay, their hole is thousands of dollars deep.”
Faith also said implementing the order could be “messy,” since it would often fall to local judges to determine if a tenant qualifies. In Ohio alone, that would involve hundreds of housing courts.
The CDC order covers only people who:
— Have an income of $198,000 or less for couples filing jointly, or $99,000 for single filers.
— Demonstrate they have sought government assistance to make their rental payments.
— Are unable to pay rent because of COVID-19 hardships.
— Are likely to become homeless if they are evicted.
The CDC order comes as many local and state eviction bans are set to expire. California’s measure was supposed to end Wednesday, but Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation Monday to extend it through Jan. 31 for people who pay at least 25% of the rent owed during that time.
He described the law as “a bridge to a more permanent solution” from the federal government.
“We need a real, federal commitment of significant new funding to assist struggling tenants and homeowners in California and across the nation,” Newsom said.
Brian Morgenstern, a deputy White House press secretary, said the administration “has also made federal funds available to alleviate any economic impact to tenants, landlords, and property owners.” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said his agency had allocated nearly $10 billion in resources and rental assistance.
Landlords say the order forces them to shoulder a heavy financial burden.
“It’s great to say nobody can be evicted,” said Mitch Matorin, who is owed $11,400 in back rent on property he owns in Worcester, Massachusetts. “But all that does is push this large societal cost onto the landlords."
Matorin, a lead plaintiff in the case against the state moratorium, said he has had to dip into savings to make monthly mortgage payments.
“If there is a societal interest that requires no evictions, then society needs to step up and fund it,” he said. "Otherwise, it is incredibly unfair and untenable to shove the cost on the landlords.”
A $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed in May by Democrats in the House would provide about $175 billion to pay rents and mortgages. A counter proposal from Senate Republicans offers far less. Advocacy groups have sought more than $100 billion.
Vetstein said there were many questions about the order, including whether it applies to eviction cases already filed in the courts. It is also unclear how the order would affect lawsuits like the one in Massachusetts challenging the state moratorium.
“One of our clients is a nurse," he said. “She is owed over $20,000, and now she is going to be stuck. Through the end of the year she will be owed $30,000, and the tenant can just live there for free. It’s literally going to cause her financial ruin.”
Faith said it's good to see the administration acknowledge the public health threat posed by evictions that could send people into crowded shelters and other housing. But the moratorium is “not the ideal way to proceed.”
Whatever the order's limitations, renters like Natasha Blunt are relieved.
“Sign me up!” the New Orleans resident said after learning about the government directive.
A GoFundMe campaign and earnings from a part-time housekeeping job helped her catch up on rent through September on the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her two young grandchildren. But she was worried about what would happen after that.
“Oh my God. That would be a blessing for me and my babies," said Blunt, who lost her banquet porter's job at the beginning of the pandemic. "I would be able to buy food. It would just lift a huge weight off my shoulders.”
GoFundMe and donations from several community groups helped Amanda Wood of Columbus, Ohio, stave off eviction in August. But Wood, who is 23 and pregnant and has a 6-month-old at home, is scrambling again to pay September's bills.
“It makes me feel good that I can’t get evicted," said Wood, who lost her job with a claims-management company in April. But she's still worried about paying all those months of rent in January.
“You could still face eviction after that,” she said. "The landlord isn’t going to dismiss all the months of rent that has been built up.”
Garcia Cano reported from Baltimore. Associated Press Financial Markets Writer Ken Sweet in New York and Associated Press Medical Writer Carla K. Johnson in Washington state contributed to this report.