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Judge strikes down CDC’s national moratorium on evictions

A federal judge blocked a nationwide eviction moratorium established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year as Covid-19 lockdowns put millions of renters out of work.

U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich in Washington said the agency exceeded its authority by issuing a broad moratorium on evictions across all rental properties. “The CDC order must be set aside,” she said in a 20-page opinion today. In recent months, others judges issued more limited rulings blocking the ban in certain jurisdictions. Friedrich’s decision goes further, saying the entire ban should be overturned nationwide.

The ruling is a setback to efforts by President Joe Biden to help renters and unwind the financial stress caused by the pandemic. The CDC moratorium, first enacted by President Donald Trump and extended by Biden, was designed to prevent mass evictions in the face of a public health emergency that saw millions of Americans lose their jobs and fall deeper into debt.

Overturning the judge’s ruling is “critical to prevent mass evictions just as we seem to be on the verge of reaching herd immunity in the U.S.,” said Eric Dunn, director of litigation a the National Housing Law Project.

The U.S Department of Justice moved to appeal. A spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Landlord groups welcomed the decision. Paula Cino, vice president for construction, development and land use policy at the National Multifamily Housing Council, said the country is in a far different place than it was early in the pandemic. By continuing the CDC moratorium, the federal government was “ignoring the progress made.”

BILLS PILING UP

While government measures sought to prevent mass homelessness, there was no targeted help for mom-and-pop property owners who provide much of America’s affordable housing. For these landlords, mortgage, maintenance and tax bills have been piling up, putting them in danger of losing their buildings or being forced to sell to wealthier investors hunting for distressed deals.

The Biden administration has been trying to relieve the financial stress caused by the pandemic. The Treasury Department is in the process of getting almost $47 billion in relief out to states and municipalities to help people cover rental arrears and unpaid utility bills.

But the rollout has been moving slowly and varied from state to state. The ban, first enacted in September, was supposed to expire at the end of the year but was extended through June to help get the money flowing before protections ended.

Friedrich acknowledged that the Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC have “broad authority” to enact regulations that prevent the spread of disease. Still, she said, their power is limited to inspecting, fumigating, disinfecting, sanitizing, exterminating or destroying infected “animals or articles” that pose a danger to humans.

AUTHORITY LIMITS

“The Public Health Service Act authorizes the Department to combat the spread of disease through a range of measures, but these measures plainly do not encompass the nationwide eviction moratorium set forth in the CDC order,” Friedrich said.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters the moratorium has “had a huge benefit” and that the Justice Department would have more to say about the ruling later.

While there were loopholes that allowed some evictions to move forward, renters have been protected against eviction by a patchwork of state and federal laws. That means in many places tenants who’ve fallen behind on rent may still be covered by other measures.

Some property owners have argued eviction bans leave them saddled with tenants who were delinquent even before the pandemic.

The U.S. asked Friedrich to limit any block on the ban to the specific plaintiffs in the case, rather than issue a broad nationwide order. But Friedrich ruled that the entire prohibition must be set aside.

RELATED RULINGS

The ruling today is the latest legal setback for the Biden administration, which has also seen its proposed national freeze on deportations halted by a court. The White House is facing several other legal challenges, including on offshore drilling, on the Keystone pipeline permit and on Covid-relief legislation from Republican-led state attorneys general.

Friedrich, a Donald Trump appointee, isn’t the first judge to weigh in on the CDC moratorium.

In February, a federal judge in Texas ruled that the federal government’s power to regulate interstate commerce under the Constitution doesn’t give it the right to impose a moratorium on evictions. The U.S. appealed, arguing that the decision did not extend beyond the particular plaintiffs in that case.

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