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U.S. Attorney General Asks Lawyers to Help Renters Avoid Evictions

August 31, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
Attorney General Merrick Garland. speaks during an event with President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del. The once-snubbed Supreme Court pick will finally come before the Senate, this time as President Joe Biden's choice for attorney general. Garland, an appeals court judge, is widely expected to sail through his confirmation process, beginning Monday at a hearing, with bipartisan support. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Justice Department sent out an urgent request this week for attorneys nationwide to volunteer to represent an expected flood of renters trying to avoid eviction.

A letter from U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland asked “the entire legal community” to help prevent hundreds of thousands of evictions after the Supreme Court decided last week to void the federal eviction moratorium.

The financial firm Goldman Sachs estimates at least 750,000 households will lose their homes this year because of the court’s ruling. Collectively, they owe their landlords at least $12 billion, Goldman Sachs estimates. 

The Supreme Court’s ruling blocks the Biden administration from enforcing a temporary ban that was put in place because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The projected 750,000 households close to losing their homes this year is likely to grow in later months, according to a U.S. Census Bureau estimate. About 3.5 million people in the United States face eviction.

The Supreme Court’s opinion says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which extended the moratorium to Oct. 3, lacked legal authority without congressional approval.

The CDC claimed authority for the moratorium under Section 361(a) of the Public Health Service Act. The law authorizes the CDC to take any regulatory measures needed to “prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases …”

Justice Department attorneys argued the law gives the CDC broad authority that could include the eviction moratorium.

The Supreme Court noted that on the rare occasions the law is invoked, it is used to quarantine infected individuals and prohibit the import or sale of animals known to transmit disease, not to justify an eviction moratorium.

The Court’s majority said the CDC’s broad interpretation of its authority extends the power of government too far over private property, particularly considering that landlords could face fines as high as $250,000 and one year in jail for violating the moratorium.

“It would be one thing if Congress had specifically authorized the action that the CDC has taken,” the Court’s opinion said. “But that has not happened. 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.”

More than 60 Democrats in the House of Representatives are asking congressional leaders to take action. They wrote a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer saying the eviction moratorium should be extended through the end of the pandemic.

A dissent from the Supreme Court’s three liberal justices largely agreed with House Democrats. It said, “The public interest strongly favors respecting the CDC’s judgment at this moment, when over 90% of counties are experiencing high [COVID-19] transmission rates.”

The first version of the moratorium was ordered last year by the Trump administration out of concern people who were unable to pay their rent would be forced into crowded living conditions like homeless shelters, which would increase spread of the virus.

The Biden administration argues the recent infection surge from the delta variant showed the dangers of resuming evictions.

The last hope for the renters appears to be the $46.5 billion in rental assistance Congress approved that is being distributed by the states.

However, distribution of the money by states has been slowed by a requirement that applicants prove their financial need. In addition, some applicants are uncertain how to apply for the subsidy.

Only about 11%, or just over $5 billion of the federal rental assistance, was distributed to renters by last week, according to the U.S. Treasury estimates.

Garland is hoping legal clinics, law firms and law schools will reach out to the disadvantaged to help them complete their applications. Evictions are expected to double compared with their pre-pandemic levels, especially among tenants who lack legal representation, he wrote.

Garland added that “the vast majority of tenants need access to legal counsel because far too many evictions result from default judgments in which the tenant never appeared in court.”

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