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House panel takes up bill blocking evictions in national emergencies

WASHINGTON (CN) — The necessity of passing federal legislation aimed at curbing illegal eviction was examined at length Monday during a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing.

Although a national eviction moratorium was imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, tenants throughout the country were still susceptible to “self-help” evictions — when landlords retake possession of their property without going through the proper eviction process. Self-help evictions are outlawed in most states.

Locks have been changed on tenants as they grocery shop or go about family-related duties, leaving some renters who are enduring crises exacerbated by the pandemic without legal recourse to reclaim their possessions or homes.

The national pandemic eviction moratorium is meant to be temporary and has faced some hurdles, with a federal judge in Washington ruling early last month that the CDC overstepped its authority. What that means for tenants now is unclear, as there have been several court rulings that have attempted to strike down the moratorium but with limited application.

House lawmakers met Monday to debate H.R. 1451, or the Emergency Eviction Enforcement Act of 2021, which would prevent landlords from trying to force out tenants during any national emergency. Prohibited actions include moving to evict tenants without a court order or creating a hostile environment in an effort to pressure them to vacate a property.

Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, spoke in support of the bill, noting Black renters were disproportionally affected by unlawful evictions compared to white tenants. While the economy recovers and vaccines become widely available, she said the legislation would help protect tenants whose financial struggles have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Until this pandemic is fully behind us and the economy has stabilized, Americans need the support of their government to stay on their feet,” Shelton said. “As long as there is a public health emergency and eviction moratoriums are in place, landlords are obligated to treat their tenants with respect and not try to circumvent the laws.”

Cindy Ettingoff is CEO of Memphis Area Legal Services, a group that represents low-income individuals in civil matters in western Tennessee. She touched briefly on the human impact of unlawful self-help evictions with a story about one client. Frantically contacting Ettingoff for help, that client said a bedridden family member who had been placed on oxygen was physically moved outside onto the street in December as part of a landlord’s forced removal.

“The whole family was traumatized,” Ettingoff told the House committee. “The tenant video-recorded the event from the time when he and his family drove up to their home to find their belongings and housemate outside. Christmas presents for the children had been placed on the street.”

Katy Mason Ramsey, an assistant law professor at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, testified that the pandemic had intensified the frequency of these self-help evictions. In June of last year, 91% of legal aid attorneys across the country reported illegal evictions in their areas, she noted, saying H.R. 1451 would give localities a specific description of illegal actions landlords are prevented from taking during national emergencies.

“The definition of illegal self-help and the available remedies can vary significantly from state to state, and this bill provides uniformity and clarity as to what constitutes illegal behavior and what relief is available to people who are effected,” Mason Ramsey said.  

While the majority of witnesses expressed their support of further extending tenant protections, not all of them did.

Joel Griffith, a financial regulations research fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the federal eviction moratorium unduly burdened landlords. The pandemic moratorium prevented politicians from taking responsibility for a drop in unemployment in localities with “draconian restrictions,” he said, noting the lack of economic impact on areas without such restrictions.

Griffith also noted in July of last year, there was only a 2.2% increase in renters who had been late on their payments in comparison to 2019. He said the CDC’s eviction ban allowed some renters, “many who were neither impacted by Covid-19 nor experiencing financial hardship, to live rent-free with no immediate personal consequences.”  

“These eviction moratoria produce harmful ripple effects,” Griffith said. “Landlords may need to increase rents to mitigate the risk of future moratoria. Prospective renters may find themselves subject to increased security deposits and tighter credit checks. Ultimately fewer affordable housing units might be constructed.”

H.R. 1451 was introduced by Congressman Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat representing a district in Memphis.