Judge overturns federal moratorium on evictions during pandemic

WASHINGTON (CN) — A federal judge on Wednesday struck down the nationwide halt on evictions, saying the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overstepped its authority to help millions of renting Americans who were pushed out of work with the outbreak of Covid-19. 

“It is the role of the political branches, and not the courts, to assess the merits of policy measures designed to combat the spread of disease, even during a global pandemic,” U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich wrote. “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? It does not.”

The lawsuit was brought by a group of realtors and property owners in Alabama who say that they are experiencing increasing financial burdens from tenants who haven’t paid rent in over a year.

“The Eviction Moratorium has a massive economic impact because it shifts the pandemic’s financial burdens from 30-40 million renters to 10-11 million landlords — most of whom are small businesses,” the property owners told the court last year in a November filing

The eviction moratorium, which was first enacted by then-President Donald Trump and extended by now-President Joe Biden, was set to expire on June 30. The Alabama plaintiffs estimated that the moratorium will cost landlords around the nation $55 billion to $76 billion during the time that they are barred from evicting nonpaying tenants, but that the harm would rise to hundreds of billions of dollars if the CDC extends the moratorium. 

As the CDC sees it, however, the halt on evictions has kept roofs over the heads of up to 40 million people in the U.S. It notes as well that evicted renters are more likely to increase the spread of Covid-19 and contract the disease themselves. 

What’s more, as noted in a January report from the Urban Institute, Black and Hispanic renters are four times more likely than their white counterparts to face eviction.

“These negative public health consequences could become enormous if evictions were to proceed unchecked during the pandemic,” the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency overseeing the CDC, told the court in a December response brief, arguing that Congress vested the HHS secretary with broad authority to take action to control the spread of dangerous infectious diseases. 

Friedrich, a Trump appointee, acknowledged that this decision could have far-reaching consequences.

“The pandemic has triggered difficult policy decisions that have had enormous real-world consequences,” his 20-page order states. “The nationwide eviction moratorium is one such decision.”

What this means for tenants is unclear, said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, as there have been several court rulings that have attempted to strike down the moratorium but with limited application.

“There are now numerous conflicting court rulings at the district court level, with several judges ruling in favor of the moratorium and several ruling against,” Yentel said in an email. “While this latest ruling is written more starkly than previous ones, it likely has equally limited application impacting only the plaintiffs who brought the case or, at most, renters in the district court’s jurisdiction.”

Yentel called on the Department of Justice, which is representing the CDC, to immediately appeal the ruling.

On the other side of the spectrum, a group called New Civil Liberties Alliance applauded Judge Friedrich on Wednesday for smacking down what it calls a “brazen power grab” from the CDC.

“Unfortunately, the eviction moratorium is still on the books in a number of jurisdictions,” Caleb Kruckenberg, litigation counsel for the alliance, said in a statement. “Having now agreed to hear the case on an expedited basis, the 11th Circuit is poised to be the first federal appeals court to strike down the moratorium and protect housing providers across the country who have been forced to provide unlimited free housing to their tenants.”

Neither the attorneys representing the Alabama plaintiffs nor the Justice Department responded to requests for comment.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday that the Justice Department is reviewing the court’s decision and will have more to say later in the day.