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Opinion: Trump’s eviction ban doesn't go far enough

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Millions of people in the U.S. are facing the threat of eviction amid one of the worst health and economic crises in the nation’s history. Helping them should be a top priority. The Trump administration says it agrees and knows how to do it. Unfortunately, the policy it just announced is poorly judged.

At the president’s behest, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has placed a moratorium on evictions, effective through Dec. 31. The stated aim is to prevent the spread of Covid-19 by keeping people at home and out of crowded homeless shelters. The protection applies to people who attest that they expect to earn less than $99,000 in 2020 ($198,000 for joint tax filers), can’t make full rent or housing payments despite best efforts, have sought government assistance and would end up homeless if evicted.

Set aside for a moment the significant legal issues — such as how local courts will interpret the order, and whether it’s even within the statutory and constitutional authority of a federal executive agency focused on public health. Assume the ban works as proposed: Would it help?

It would indeed give temporary relief to millions of people. A previous ban on evictions from federally financed properties, enacted by Congress in March, expired in July. Only a minority of states have their own bans in place, and many of those are set to end before Dec. 31. As of the third week of July, some 33% of renters — in households containing about 24 million people, disproportionately Black and Latino — had little or no confidence that they could make their August payments, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.

The trouble is, the rent is still due. Moratoriums do nothing to alleviate obligations to landlords. On the contrary, the debts will keep piling up, which all but ensures disaster when the bans finally lapse. Meanwhile, landlords — who, in the case of inexpensive rental units, are predominantly smaller individual investors — won’t have the resources to pay their own debts and maintain properties. This threatens to destabilize the financial system, and to deplete the nation’s already inadequate supply of affordable housing.

The right solution has long been clear: Congress should provide tenants with the support they need, by enacting an emergency expansion of federal rental assistance and allowing states the flexibility to distribute the money as quickly as possible. The cost would amount to between $12 billion and $16 billion a month, depending on whether enhanced unemployment benefits are extended alongside. That is a bargain in comparison with the $2.2 trillion price of the last coronavirus relief package.

If Trump really wants to prevent evictions, he should push Congress to act. As it stands, he has at best postponed the crisis until after the presidential election — at the expense of the nation’s future economic and social stability.

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