ATLANTA (CN) — A federal judge in Atlanta heard arguments Tuesday over whether a federal directive halting residential evictions through the end of the year to help control the spread of the coronavirus can stay in effect.
The National Apartment Association and landlords from four states – Georgia, South Carolina, New Jersey and Virginia – sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta federal court challenging the agency’s Sept. 4 order barring landlords from evicting tenants for failure to pay rent through the end of the year.
During a hearing held via Zoom on Tuesday morning, an attorney for the government argued that a decision overturning the eviction moratorium could force millions of renters from their homes into homeless shelters or onto the streets as Covid-19 infection rates surge around the nation.
Arguing on behalf of the plaintiffs, attorney Caleb Kruckenberg of the New Civil Liberties Alliance told U.S. District Judge J.P. Boulee, a Donald Trump appointee, that the inability to evict tenants who can’t pay rent is causing his clients irreparable economic harm.
He called the order “an unprecedented exercise of agency power that far exceeds anything that Congress envisioned” for the CDC and said the agency has overstepped its authority by unconstitutionally locking his clients out of state court.
“The idea that an administrative agency that’s focused on public health can simply walk in and shut down the court systems across the country – it’s really breathtaking,” Kruckenberg said.
But the government has argued that coronavirus-related eviction bans are an effective tool for preventing and controlling the spread of the virus.
The CDC order says eviction bans help facilitate self-isolation by people who become ill, allow state and local authorities to more easily implement social distancing directives, and help prevent homelessness.
The moratorium points out that homelessness increases the likelihood that people will move into shared living situations, including shelters, which then puts them at higher risk of contracting Covid-19.
Leslie Vigen, an attorney for the government, said the order is in the public interest and is merely a temporary imposition on landlords’ property.
“CDC has taken what is admittedly a very wide-reaching action,” Vigen conceded Tuesday. “But that type of action is only necessary to prevent the spread of disease when we have such widespread contagion and the disease has affected and continues to affect so many.”
She added, “CDC’s response is calibrated to the seriousness of the disease it is trying to protect the public from here.”
But Kruckenberg insisted that the CDC has not provided any evidence that its eviction moratorium will improve infection rates.
Referring to the order as “a compounding problem,” Kruckenberg argued that the financial harm suffered by landlords who cannot regain possession of their property from tenants who aren’t paying rent will be exponential.
“My clients are stuck on the line paying for the economic hardship of the pandemic,” he argued. “No one wants to evict anyone but it cannot be my clients’ responsibility to provide housing indefinitely just because there’s economic hardship associated with the pandemic. The states should be allowed to deal with this on their own. If this is really a problem that needs to be addressed nationally, then Congress should do it.”
The moratorium does not relieve tenants of having to pay rent and not everyone is eligible for relief from eviction.
To be eligible under the order, renters must have an income of $99,000 or less (or $198,000 for couples); show that they’ve sought government help to pay rent; declare that they can’t pay because of economic hardships; and affirm that they are likely to become homeless or be forced to move into a shared living situation if evicted.
Kruckenberg emphasized that his clients are not asking the judge to evict anyone, but are simply asking the court to “restore the court process.”
Vigen urged Judge Boulee to uphold the CDC order or narrowly tailor any relief he might decide to grant the landlords.
“Invalidating the entire order could result in millions of evictions throughout the country leading into the winter flu season,” Vigen said.