WASHINGTON – Liberal lawmakers will introduce legislation this week that would give the Department of Health and Human Services the authority to create federal eviction moratoriums – pushing back against a ruling by the Supreme Court that the agency does not have the authority to do so.
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., comes weeks after the high court blocked the Biden administration's eviction moratorium, ruling the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not have authority to impose the freeze. The CDC is one of the arms of HHS.
The legislation – dubbed the Keeping Renters Safe Act of 2021 – aims to protect renters from eviction by amending Section 361 of the Public Health Service Act to grant the HHS and CDC permanent authority to implement federal eviction moratoriums to address public health crises.
The Public Health Service Act authorizes the federal government to respond to medical and health emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Section 361 specifies the HHS secretary is authorized to "take measures to prevent the entry and spread of communicable diseases." Those functions are delegated to the CDC.
Through the Keeping Renters Safe Act of 2021, the lawmakers argued that the eviction of millions during a national emergency would increase the likelihood of diseases such as COVID-19 spreading. The ability to create federal eviction moratoriums would decrease that threat during COVID-19 and in future health crises.
"This pandemic isn’t over, and we have to do everything we can to protect renters from the harm and trauma of needless eviction, which upends the lives of those struggling to get back on their feet," Warren said. "Pushing hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes will only exacerbate this public health crisis and cause economic harm to families, their communities and our overall recovery."
Bush told USA TODAY, "This is the only way we make sure that we are keeping people safe, especially now that we are dealing with this pandemic that continues to surge and is just out of control."
Other eviction moratoriums haven't survived
Congress approved an eviction moratorium in the early months of the pandemic in 2020.
A few months later, then-President Donald Trump ordered the CDC to impose its own freeze, which it did last September. The CDC's freeze was extended several times, and President Joe Biden extended it again in June for 30 days, prompting a political and legal battle over its impact.
As the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus took hold, Biden asked Congress to take up the matter.
When lawmakers could not reach a consensus, the CDC and the Biden administration announced a moratorium in August that would have run through the end of October.
Several real estate groups in Georgia and Alabama sued.
The Supreme Court shot down Biden's attempt to extend the moratorium for the hardest-hit areas. Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh said in a previous ruling by the court that it's up to Congress to pass a bill giving the CDC authority.
Kavanaugh wrote a warning in June that the CDC "exceeded its existing statutory authority by issuing a nationwide eviction moratorium."
"Clear and specific congressional authorization (via new legislation) would be necessary for the CDC to extend the moratorium past July 31," he said.
Bush said she and Warren crafted their legislation with prior legal difficulties in mind.
"We want to change the law to say that the HHS has the ability to make the decision" to craft eviction moratoriums, she said. "So when the secretary says that 'this is what needs to happen,' he has the ability to be able to make that call."
The legislation would apply to all residential eviction filings, hearings, judgments and execution of judgments.
Impact of evictions
The ruling from the Supreme Court allowed property owners to begin the process of evicting millions of Americans who are behind on rent.
One in six renters is estimated to be behind on their rent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey.
Sabrina Davis, 63, in Kansas City, Missouri, was evicted in August during an ongoing legal battle with her landlord.
Davis, who has a disability, told USA TODAY she felt "thrown away" by her city, state and nation, and the government "could care less."
"Why are we, as citizens of this country, going through this?" she asked through tears.
Davis expressed gratitude to stay with a friend, but she emphasized that her eviction "exposed me greatly" to COVID-19.
Eviction is "like a death sentence. It's like I've been just thrown out there to the virus," she said. If her friend had not taken her in, Davis said, she would have had to go to a shelter, which are often crowded or overflowing, or live on the streets.
When the previous moratorium expired, congressional Democrats pushed the Biden administration to extend the ban once again.
Bush, who has been evicted herself, slept outside the Capitol for several nights in a protest designed to draw attention to the expiring moratorium.
The moratorium under the new legislation would remain in effect for at least 60 days "after the conclusion of the public health emergency."
Future in Congress
It is unclear whether the legislation will gather Republican support in either chamber of Congress.
Bush told USA TODAY she wishes to see the legislation attached and passed through a continuing resolution: a temporary, stopgap funding measure to avoid a government shutdown while Congress debates how to fund the government.
If it is not included in an upcoming continuing resolution and is pursued separately, it's chances are unknown.
USA TODAY asked the offices of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., about when Congress may take legislative action on the bill.
In August, Republicans objected to an effort to pass an extension through the House.
In the Senate, 10 Republicans would need to join all 50 Democratic-voting senators to push the legislation past a legislative hurdle known as the filibuster.
USA TODAY reached out to the offices of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for comment about Republican support in either chamber.
This summer, Republicans from both chambers argued against extending the eviction moratorium, citing questions over its legality. Republicans pointed to COVID-19 assistance legislation that delegated billions of dollars to tenants and landlords to prevent evictions.
Millions of Americans, renters and landlords alike, have not received the emergency rental assistance available to them through a federal program administered by their states.
“Congress appropriated $47 billion of rental assistance to address this exact problem. The admin’s time would be better spent dealing with its failure to get money owed to landlords rather than papering over its failures with illegal actions,” Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said in a tweet this summer.
According to the Treasury Department, states and cities spent $5.2 billion out of $46.5 billion in rental relief authorized from two COVID-19 rescue packages beginning in December – $4.7 billion of which has gone directly to households and the rest toward administrative costs. About 11% of the total funds had been dispersed through July.
Until that money is distributed and the virus is under control, the legislation would "help people to come from under the financial burden and also gives them the opportunity to figure out what their next move is," Bush said.
Contributing: John Fritze, Joey Garrison
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bush, Warren bill would give HHS power to impose eviction moratoriums