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Supreme Court strikes down COVID eviction halt; Az rent aid still slow to be provided

In a 6-3 order, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration's order extending a federal halt on evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, writing Thursday that the CDC exceeded its authority by blocking the enforcement of evictions orders.

In communities across the country, including Tucson and Pima County, federal funding meant to keep people in their homes has been slow to be distributed, advocates for renters and lobbyists for landlords have said.

Earlier this month, with a deadline looming, the Centers for Disease Control extended a moratorium on residential evictions until October 3, applying it to areas with "substantial" or "high" levels of community transmission of  COVID-19. That included all of Pima County, where coronavirus cases have spiked.

The pause of evictions did not cover all renters, but did protect thousands from immediate eviction, while local and state governments moved to distribute billions in financial aid created by Congress.

However, on Thursday, the court's conservative justices found that the CDC's order blocking evictions was a "sweeping power" that rested on a"wafer-thin" part of the CDC's mandate. Those justices had already signaled in June that they would dismantle such protections in a 5-4 decision that allowed an earlier moratorium to stand until it expired soon after.

In June, Justice Brett Kavanaugh cast the deciding vote against the federal delay on evictions, and wrote in his own separate decision  that he voted not to end the program over the summer because "those few weeks will allow for additional and more orderly distribution" of rental aid.

Just six days ago, the U.S. Circuit Court in D.C. ruled against the consortium of landlords and realtors, led by a realty group in Alabama, that launched to the suit. However, the group filed an emergency motion with the Supreme Court.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said in a statement Thursday that Biden officials were "disappointed that the Supreme Court has blocked the most recent CDC eviction moratorium while confirmed cases of the Delta variant are significant across the country."

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"As a result of this ruling, families will face the painful impact of evictions, and communities across the country will face greater risk of exposure to COVID-19," she said. "In light of the Supreme Court ruling and the continued risk of COVID-19 transmission, President Biden is once again calling on all entities that can prevent evictions - from cities and states to local courts, landlords, Cabinet Agencies — to urgently act to prevent evictions."

In Southern Arizona, potentially thousands of renters have been covered by the series of delays in evictions, ordered over the past 18 months by both state and federal authorities.

"This abrupt yet not unexpected end to the eviction moratorium was foreshadowed for months, and could have been avoided with congressional action," Pima County Constable Kirsten Randall told TucsonSentinel.com on Thursday night. "What could have been an organized transition from the moratorium will now be a scramble to pull together resources and legal opinions ahead of increased enforcement and filing of evictions."

Randall said that Pima County officials would continue to work with the county's Emergency Eviction Legal Services team to find resources for families facing eviction and "help them avoid homelessness."

"With shelters currently almost at capacity, hotel vouchers nearly exhausted and homelessness prevention plans still being worked out, there are some serious challenges ahead of us," she said.

Experts estimated that more than 6 million families across the country were behind on rent, and could be vulnerable to evictions, and owed as much as $23 billion in rent, owing on average about $3,800 per household. In Pima County, nearly 11 percent of renters are behind on rent, according to analysis from the New York Times.

In June, the National Low Income Housing Coalition and more than 850 organizations sent a letter to Biden administration officials, urging them to extend and strengthen the moratorium,  writing that doing so would stop a "historic wave of evictions."

The letter, written before the Delta variant spiked cases, said that "while vaccinations rates are up and COVID-19 caseloads are down in many areas, those communities with lower vaccination rates and higher COVID-19 cases tend to be the same as those with renters at heightened risk of eviction when the moratorium expires."

"Allowing the moratorium to expire before vaccination rates increase in marginalized communities could lead to increased spread of, and deaths from, COVID-19," the group wrote.

In March 2020, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or CARES Act, which included a 120-day eviction moratorium for properties that participated in federal assistance programs, or were backed by federal loans. However, in July 2020, Congress did not renew the moratorium, and instead, the CDC under the Trump administration issued its own moratorium which was slated to expire at the end of the year.

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However, Congress extended the eviction delay as part of a second COVID-19 relief bill, and as the deadline loomed, the CDC pushed back the end of the moratorium three more times, extending it to October 3.

CDC relies on 'decades-old statute'

"It would be one thing if Congress had specifically authorized the action that the CDC has taken. But that has not happened," wrote the court's six conservative justices, led by Chief Justice John Roberts. "Instead, the CDC has imposed a nationwide moratorium on evictions in reliance on a decades-old statute that authorizes it to implement measures like fumigation and pest extermination. It strains credulity to believe that this statute grants the CDC the sweeping authority that it asserts."

They wrote that the Biden administration's understanding of the law "would give the CDC a breathtaking amount of authority," and that it relief on a "wafer-thin reed" for "such sweeping power."

"It is hard to see what measures this interpretation would place outside the CDC’s reach," and the government has "identified no limit in beyond the requirement that the CDC deem a measure 'necessary.'"

"Could the CDC, for example, mandate free grocery delivery to the homes of the sick or vulnerable? Require manufacturers to provide free computers to enable people to work from home? Order telecommunications companies to provide free high-speed Internet service to facilitate remote work?" they complained.

"It is indisputable that the public has a strong interest in combating the spread of the COVID–19 Delta variant," they wrote. "But our system does not permit agencies to act unlawfully even in pursuit of desirable ends."

Public interest 'not favored by the spread of disease'

In a dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that "it is far from 'demonstrably' clear that the CDC lacks the power to issue its modified moratorium order. The CDC's current order is substantially more tailored than its prior eviction moratorium, which automatically applied nationwide. Justified by the Delta-variant surge, the modified order targets only those regions currently experiencing sky-rocketing rates."

Breyer said that when the court denied the previous challenge, fewer than 20 percent of counties would have been covered by the modified order, however, "today that figures is over 90 percent."

He argued that the CDC's authority allows the agency to "design measures that, in the agency's judgement, are essential  to contain disease outbreaks. The provision's plan meaning includes eviction moratoria necessary to stop the spread of diseases like COVID-19." And, the balance of equities favors leaving the stay in place, Breyer added, noting that Congress had appropriated billions in financial aid to help pay rent.

"It may, as applicants say, take time to get that money—and that is an injury," Breyer wrote. "But compared that injury to the irreparable harm from vacating the stay. COVID-19 transmission rates have spiked in recent weeks, reached levels that the CDC puts as high as last winter: 150,000 new cases per day."

He added that the public interest is "not favored by the spread of disease or a court's second guessing of the CDC's judgement."

"On applicants' last trip to this Court, they argued that the 'downward trend in COVID-19 cases and the effectiveness of vaccines' left 'no...public health rational for the...moratorium," Breyer wrote. "These predictions have proved tragically untrue. Today they show just how little we may presume to know about the course of this pandemic."

Last week, the administration wrote that the CDC's new moratorium is "a proper use of its lawful authority to protect the public health," and added that they were are pleased by a lower court's decision that left the moratorium in place, "keeping hard-pressed Americans in their homes in areas of substantial or high COVID-19 spread."

White House pushes for distribution of funds

"Throughout the pandemic, national, state and local eviction moratoria have kept people housed and slowed the spread of COVID-19. As we continue our effort to stop the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant, the eviction moratorium remains vitally important," the White House said, adding that the President pushed for state and local governments to "do more to protect vulnerable households."

This includes distributing the $46.5 billion earmarked in emergency rental assistance funds created by the American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law in March. The White House also pressed for state and local courts to issue their own moratoriums and implement policies to "discourage eviction filings until landlords and tenants have sought Emergency Rental Assistance funds."

Arizona received about $492 million for Emergency Rental Assistance, with around $290 million going to the state, while Pima County received nearly $15 million, and the city of Tucson gained about $16.6 million.

On August 6, local officials said there was nearly $36 million available in emergency rental assistance, and said they would quickly distribute the funds during the 60-day extension of the moratorium.

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Treasury Department data shows that Pima County aided 1,172 families since the program began, distributing about $5.9 million in rental assistance and utilities, after receiving around $15.2 million. From June 1 to June 30, Pima County helped around 344 households.

The city of Tucson distributed $2.7 million, aiding about 733 families, after receiving $16.7 million.

About $1.7 billion was distributed in July to vulnerable households for rent, utilities and missed payments across the country, only a minor increase from a month earlier when federal officials distributed $1.5 billion. The slow rollout of federal funds has meant that most of the $45 billion appropriated by Congress for emergency aids has not reached the people who need it.

Of the $25 billion appropriated in December, state and local programs distributed just $5.1 billion between January and the end of July. Another $21.5 billion was added by the American Rescue Plan in March, and of that, about $108 million had been distributed by June.

In a report, Treasury officials said they were making progress, adding that by July 31, there were more than 1 million payment made to eligible households since the programs began in January. In July, more than 340,000 households received nearly $1.7 billion in rental and utilities assistance.

Treasury said that many local governments had "shown an ability to aid vulnerable households quickly," however, too many have "yet to demonstrate sufficient progress in getting assistance to struggling tenants and landlords."

"After September, programs that are unwilling or unable to deliver assistance quickly will be at risk of having their rental assistance funding reallocated to effective programs in other high-need areas," they said.

"One of the biggest challenges many state and local government programs continue to face in getting assistance to renters and landlords is application processing delays," officials said, adding that "hundreds of thousands of applications are in the pipeline beyond those that have already been paid."

The Arizona Multihousing Association, a statewide lobbying group representing apartment owners, praised the court's decision, but also pressed for a streamlined distribution of millions in funds earmarked for eviction assistance by the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan.

"The federal government’s unprecedented nullification of more than 1 million private contracts statewide has pushed mom-and-pop rental owners and apartment community owners to the brink of bankruptcy," AMA said. "In Arizona, industry estimates place the amount of unpaid rent at more than $500 million. A national survey reports that about one in four single family rental owners has been forced to sell all or some of their properties because of the moratorium."

"Despite such intense financial pressure, Arizona property owners have worked with residents to keep them in their homes, to keep them safe from the pandemic, and to help them qualify for eviction relief that has been slow to arrive for a year and a half," the trade group claimed. "Property owners stepped up while struggling to pay their own mortgages, property taxes, maintenance and payroll costs."

The group said that it had "strongly encouraged" members to keep working with residents to avoid evictions, adding "We hope they will continue to do so, as they have for 18 months."

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AMA also said that Arizona's  local and county governments must "act quickly" to distribute eviction relief funds, and Congress should "streamline its cumbersome aid qualification requirements."

"Between the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan, Arizona has been sent more than $922 million in relief funds to prevent evictions. To date, only about $101 million has been deployed," the group said. "Every dollar of rental arrears in our state can be covered by federal assistance, provided the resident qualifies and local governments finally disburse the money. The cost of failing to deploy aid will be felt by residents and property owners alike, as Arizona’s housing industry – especially small rental owners – take rental homes off the market. That will drive the cost of rent higher. Evictions and their massive expense also impact residents and property owners."

"The eviction process moves rapidly in Arizona and there are almost no legal defenses for nonpayment, which means most eviction orders are granted in cases of nonpayment," said Constable Randall.

She said that people should "stay engaged in the court process," communicate with their landlords, and "be proactive" in their search for resources.

"If you receive an eviction judgement against you from the court, try to make arrangements for housing or shelter prior to the enforcement of the eviction," Randall said, adding that constables in Pima County can "prioritize certain rental assistance applications, and work with tenants and their landlords to negotiate a voluntary delay in enforcement of the eviction to wait for rental assistance."

"I’m hopeful our proactive approach will forestall evictions," she said. "As these grants will pay overdue rent, I also hope landlords see the value in keeping their tenants housed."

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

An eviction notice taped to a window at an apartment complex in midtown Tucson.


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