Tenants and Landlords

After repeated extensions, the Cares Act moratorium on evictions, first instituted in September 2020, has finally expired.

The rent came due on August 1, after the Supreme Court ruled that another extension — the fifth in a series — would require “clear and specific congressional authorization (via new legislation),” as Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote. The court said that the CDC had already exceeded its authority by extending the moratorium.

That authorization has not been forthcoming. Democrats in Congress failed to muster a majority for it, due, in part, to lack of support from some of their own colleagues.

The moratorium was certainly well-intentioned, and did, in fact, help many Americans who were plunged into financial crisis by pandemic-related job loss. According to a study by the Aspen Institute and the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project published in August of last year, nearly 40 million people were then at risk of eviction. More than 3.5 million people in the U.S. said they could face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Pulse survey, conducted in early July.

Giving them protection against eviction was compassionate toward them and likely averted further economic dislocation and serious social unrest as well.

But the emergency situation that impelled the Cares Act has largely passed. Even though the coronavirus continues to menace public health, the economy has been able to reopen and the unemployment rate has fallen. People have learned to cope with the dangers, through vaccination, masking and other means.

Although the media focus has been on the fears and hardships of tenants threatened with eviction, there is another group that has also suffered from the pandemic-induced turbulence: landlords.

Any perception of villainous property owners, heartless rich corporations, eager to evict hapless tenants, is grossly inaccurate. An estimated 41 percent of all rental housing units in the U.S., and most of the affordable housing options, are owned by individuals, or “mom-and-pop” landlords, who depend on rental payments to pay their own bills. Many of them have been financially devastated by the moratorium.

Nobody wants families on the street because they can’t make the rent through no fault of their own. And that includes landlords, some of whom are also said to have a heart.

Furthermore, if those landlords go under, consequences for the economy will have to be reckoned with. As the liberal explainer site Vox said this week, “Losing more of America’s already dwindling affordable housing stock is a looming emergency that could be exacerbated if small landlords are required to act as the social welfare state without any financial assistance.”

The lack of financial assistance is not because the federal government is short of cash. It appears from pending legislation that it has something like $4 trillion on hand to spend on infrastructure and “human infrastructure.”

Having a roof over one’s head would seem to qualify. Surely there is something in the petty cash box to continue helping tenants and landlords.

And indeed there is. The incredible fact is, that only about $3 billion of the $46 billion in rental relief that Congress appropriated has been distributed!

In another inspiring example of your tax dollars at work, bureaucratic stumble-bummery has effectively kept those desperately needed funds from reaching eligible recipients. Confusion at the federal level about how to distribute the money, along with an information gap among renters about the necessary paperwork (many who are eligible don’t know), are blamed for it.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) in a letter on Thursday night called it a “moral imperative” to protect both renters and landlords. To that end, she is preparing legislation to direct the CDC to extend the eviction ban through Oct. 18.

Unfortunately, given the unfathomable ineptitude of the government, there is no more guarantee that further allocations will have any better chance of reaching the people who need it than previous ones.

The money is there. The bureaucracy needs to be galvanized. And that should also be on Pelosi’s agenda.

But if one thing is clear in this mess, it is that the plight of tenants is not the fault of the landlords. They should not be expected to pay out of their pockets, when they too are crushed by financial pressures.