The Trump administration said on Tuesday that it will ban evictions of tenants who are unable to pay rent because of the coronavirus crisis through the end of the year with a broad new order under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s public health powers.
The agency order , the result of an Aug. 8 executive action by President Donald Trump directing the CDC to study the issue, would impose criminal penalties on landlords who violate the ban. Evictions for reasons other than nonpayment of rent will be allowed to proceed.
It's the administration's boldest move yet to head off the specter of mass evictions in the final months before the election as the crisis caused by the pandemic shows few signs of abating. Trump has come under increasing pressure to act ever since a federal moratorium lapsed at the end of July. A $600-a-week federal boost to unemployment benefits — which many struggling tenants used to pay at least part of their rent as the crisis progressed — expired the same week.
In testimony before the House coronavirus subcommittee earlier Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the action will affect up to 40 million renters. The earlier eviction ban, passed by Congress in March as part of a massive economic rescue package, applied to federally financed rental units and protected about a quarter of the nation's tenants.
The new ban covers tenants who certify that they have lost “substantial” income; that they expect to make no more than $99,000 in 2020 or received a stimulus check; and that they are making their “best efforts” to pay as much of their rent as they can. Tenants must also certify that an eviction would likely make them homeless or push them to double up with others in close quarters.
Housing advocates cheered the news while reiterating their call for rental assistance payments to keep people in their homes and avoid massive payments of back rent in the future.
“The very least the federal government ought to do is assure each of us that we won’t lose our homes in the middle of a global pandemic," said National Low Income Housing Coalition CEO and President Diane Yentel, a frequent critic of the administration. "The administration’s action would do so and will provide relief from the growing threat of eviction for millions of anxious families.”
But a ban without assistance, Yentel said, is a “half-measure that extends a financial cliff for renters to fall off of when the moratorium expires and back rent is owed.” She called on Congress and the White House to renew negotiations on a relief package.
National Housing Conference President and CEO David Dworkin agreed, saying the order “kicks the crisis down the road to January, when the weather will be colder and more people will be in even greater crisis.”
But the National Apartment Association, a landlord advocacy group, said it is “deeply concerned” by the order.
“Without direct rental assistance, rents cannot be paid, and owners face a financial crisis of their own by not being able to maintain properties and pay their mortgages or property taxes,” NAA President & CEO Bob Pinnegar said.
“This action risks creating a cascade that will further harm the economy, amplify the housing affordability crisis and destroy the rental housing industry,” he added. “This global housing crisis cannot be blamed on the rental housing industry, nor can the industry bear the brunt of the pandemic alone.”
Mnuchin also supports rental assistance, he told lawmakers: "Our first choice is to have bipartisan legislation that allocates specific rental assistance to people hardest hit," he said.
Negotiations between the White House and Congress over new economic relief legislation broke down last month.
Trump's Aug. 8 executive action drew criticism because it did not extend the lapsed four-month eviction moratorium. Instead, the order directed the Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC to “consider whether any measures temporarily halting residential evictions” are necessary to stop the spread of Covid-19.