Federal officials sent a letter Friday to state governors, mayors, and courts, urging them to use emergency rental assistance funds authorized by Congress due to the COVID-19 pandemic before they start evicting tenants behind on rent.
"No one should be evicted before they have the chance to apply for rental assistance, and no eviction should move forward until that application has been processed," according to the letter signed by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge.
The letter comes after the United States Supreme Court ruled Aug. 26 the eviction moratorium enacted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention be lifted because the agency did not have the authority to issue it.
"Since the District Court entered its stay [allowing the moratorium], the government has had three additional months to distribute rental-assistance funds to help ease the transition away from the moratorium," the unsigned court order said. "Whatever interest the government had in maintaining the moratorium's original end date to ensure the orderly administration of those programs has since diminished."
"And Congress was on notice that a further extension would almost surely require new legislation, yet it failed to act in the several weeks leading up to the moratorium's expiration," the ruling continued. "It is indisputable that the public has a strong interest in combating the spread of the COVID-19 delta variant. But our system does not permit agencies to act unlawfully even in pursuit of desirable ends."
Congress initially approved the moratorium in March 2020 for 120 days during the height of the pandemic for properties that participated in federal assistance or were financed by federally backed loans.
When the initial moratorium expired without Congressional reauthorization July 2020, the CDC issued its own that included all residential properties nationwide and included criminal penalties for landlords that proceeded to evict tenants for not paying rent.
When that moratorium was about to expire Dec. 31, 2020, Congress extended it for a month.
After that, the CDC, again without Congressional authorization extended the moratorium three additional times through the end of July 2021.
The agency used a 1944 statute designed to limit the interstate spread of disease which states:
"The Surgeon General, with the approval of the [Secretary of Health and Human Services], is authorized to make and enforce such regulations as in his judgment are necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the States or possessions, or from one State or possession into any other State or possession. For purposes of carrying out and enforcing such regulations, the Surgeon General may provide for such inspection, fumigation, disinfection, sanitation, pest ex-termination, destruction of animals or articles found to be so infected or contaminated as to be sources of dangerous infection to human beings, and other measures, as in his judgment may be necessary."
The high court, however, found the eviction moratorium too "vast" and "sweeping" in its power, beyond the authority of the CDC, requiring congressional action through legislation instead.
As the legal battle over the moratorium continued, Congress did appropriate money to help renters pay the back rents, but those funds are still being distributed.
Friday's letter by the officials looks to mitigate the possibility of a mass wave of evictions as the delta variant continues to surge throughout the country.
"The spread of the delta variant has led to a rise in cases, many Americans are just getting back on their feet from the economic downturn, and millions remain at risk of eviction," the letter said. "With lives on the line, it is imperative that we act – at all levels of government – to keep people in their homes and prevent a surge in COVID-19, as well as the long-term economic scarring and poor health consequences that come with eviction."
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