The Biden administration and congressional Democrats had months to figure out what to do about the eviction moratorium. The federal ban on evictions, enacted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last September, has prevented millions of people who are unable to pay rent from losing their homes during the pandemic. But it lapsed on July 31, after the administration refused to renew it and a last-minute attempt by the House Democrats fizzled out.
Just two days before the moratorium’s end, the administration confirmed that it would let the measure expire, claiming that its hands were tied by a Supreme Court ruling. President Biden insisted he didn’t have the authority to extend it himself and punted the issue to Congress, where an extension was doomed from the start. Predictably, congressional Democrats failed to get their moderates on board and, despite the looming crisis, went off on a seven-week paid vacation. (There also wasn’t enough support in the Senate, where Democrats needed 60 votes to pull it off.)
If it hadn’t been for the progressive pressure campaign led by Representative Cori Bush—who before the start of her political career had been evicted three times and had lived out of her car with her children—it’s highly unlikely that Biden would have taken action. Democratic leaders were prepared to let millions of people face the possibility of being tossed out of their homes amid a surge of the Covid-19 Delta variant—until Bush’s protest forced the White House to reverse course.
The Missouri congresswoman slept on the steps of the US Capitol for several days, visited by activists and progressive lawmakers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman; even Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer showed up. There’s a law that forbids lying down on the Capitol steps, so Bush camped out in a lawn chair and sleeping bag through the rain, heat, and cold, windy mornings. “I know what it’s like…when an eviction is possible in your life, and then what happens when you are actually evicted—and what that does to you emotionally, physically, mentally, what it does to your family,” Bush said about her decision to protest.
Biden’s team didn’t just blame Congress and the Supreme Court; it attempted to shift the responsibility to mayors and governors and continued to assert its powerlessness. “The president has not only kicked the tires; he has double-, triple-, quadruple-checked,” said senior adviser Gene Sperling, who oversees the administration’s pandemic relief efforts, insisting that Biden had done his due diligence. Yet on August 3, after days of denying it had the authority, the administration announced that the CDC would issue a new, narrower moratorium, which would protect renters in 90 percent of the country through October 3.
“When people look back to this moment, it’s going to be Cori Bush who saved the day,” said Paul Williams, a housing expert and fellow at the nonprofit Jain Family Institute. “It was an incredible way for one out of 435 votes in the House to exercise real political power, in a way beyond just her vote. She couldn’t get it done with her vote, and she found another way to get it done. That’s not something that typically happens with a first-term representative.”
Much of the crisis could have been avoided if the tens of billions of dollars that Washington allotted to help struggling tenants pay their rent had actually reached them. Only a small fraction of the $46.5 billion made available by Congress has gotten into people’s hands in the past five months, according to the Treasury Department. Moratoriums only postpone evictions; meanwhile unpaid rent piles up. Emergency rental assistance programs were set up for this reason. But in states and cities across the US, these programs have been a massive failure, and the country’s obsession with means testing is largely to blame.
Tenants, housing advocates, and local news outlets have been sounding the alarm on the slow rollout of rent relief for months. Complicated eligibility requirements have kept the households most in need from getting help or have discouraged people from applying altogether. Others simply don’t know that it’s a resource available to them, and in some cities landlords have refused to participate.
The disastrous implementation of these rent relief programs, Williams said, also highlights “how little administrative capacity our local governments have to deal with these issues.” The new targeted moratorium has a different legal basis than the old one, he noted, and is “going to withstand the Supreme Court’s potential wrath much longer…so it buys more time to extinguish the debts entirely.”
“We’re all learning every day,” Representative Pramila Jayapal, leader of the Progressive Caucus, recently told reporters. “What we’re learning is that the more barriers you put up to access aid, guess what—it’s harder to access the aid! I hope that this is something people take from this as we design the next round of assistance.”