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The Eviction Moratorium Should Have Been Improved, Not Just Extended

David Dayen - The American Prospect
January 22, 2021
Tenants' rights advocates in Boston. The eviction moratorium has not prevented thousands of evictions.

The Chief

Joe Biden has spent the first three days of his presidency signing executive orders and memoranda. As I mentioned in this preview of Biden’s Day One Agenda, this is normal for presidents, particularly ones who want to establish themselves and reverse the actions of their predecessors with which they disagree.
We at the Prospect of course are keen to assess the Day One Agenda, having spent over a year crafting our own. We’re going to have something special to announce on this soon. But for now, I’d say the Biden Day One actions fall into a handful of buckets. First, there’s reversing Trump—on the border wall, the Paris climate agreement, the World Health Organization, the Muslim travel ban, etc. One of today’s orders restores collective bargaining rights for some federal workers and eliminates Trump’s “Schedule F” order that undermined federal worker protections. Reversing Trump constitutes the majority of the actions.
Second, there are some pretty novel advances, including a few things we called for in the D1A. The recalculation of the true cost of carbon pollution is important to create momentum for bold climate action. The executive action on “modernizing regulatory review” targets something we’ve highlighted repeatedly, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which is a bottleneck for regulations across the government. Biden’s order encourages the acceleration of regulations rather than delay, and seeks to add concerns like public health and racial equity into cost-benefit analysis. Sharon Block, who actually wrote this Prospect piece last year about getting regulatory review right, was named to a key position within OIRA. So while my ultimate dream would be no White House regulatory review agency, this is a close second.
Finally, today’s actions on economic relief appear to creatively seek help for vulnerable Americans, by increasing nutrition assistance, streamlining direct payment delivery, having the VA pause debt collection, allowing those who refuse work because of unsafe COVID-related conditions to maintain unemployment insurance, and moving toward a “high road” contracting order (as we called for in the Day One Agenda) that requires federal contractors to pay a $15/hour minimum wage. These are all a little tentative and dependent on developing the rules but they are a good start.
But because I’m a stinker, I have to talk about where the Day One actions fall short. I’ve noted a couple creative areas but they have been rare. Many just mechanically extend policies without the nuance of understanding how they affect people. And let’s single out one in particular: the eviction moratorium.
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Biden merely extended the existing eviction moratorium out to the end of March. That order comes out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and has its basis in public health, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But as I have noted before, it’s a very imperfect solution. Renters have to attest under penalty of perjury to their inability to pay. They continue to accrue unpaid rent and interest. And any evictions for something other than non-payment of rent are still allowable. It just forces landlords to get a little creative about dumping people on the street.
That’s exactly what has happened since the order went into effect in September. Hundreds of thousands of tenants have been losing their homes because the CDC order is vague and limited. Even when the CDC order qualifies, there’s no enforcement mechanism and it has been ignored by states and housing courts. As Right to the City Alliance noted in a statement: “Trump’s federal eviction moratorium was intentionally weak, leaving millions of tenants unprotected… it’s hardly a policy that inspires confidence for communities struggling under the pandemic.”
Biden could have removed the loopholes and strengthened the order, but instead he just auto-piloted an ineffective policy forward. He also only extended it to March, when everything in his American Rescue Plan extends to September.
One of the corporate landlords pursuing evictions despite the moratorium is called Progress Residential, continuing a pattern of high eviction rates. Progress is a single-family rental company with over 40,000 homes in the U.S. Born out of the financial crisis, these Wall Street landlords scooped up foreclosed properties and turned them into rental units. Complaints about Progress and other single-family rental companies are common. Rents are jacked up, units are substandard, and it’s impossible to get repairs.
Progress was in the spotlight recently because, a month after a buyout that put it in the hands of private equity firm Pretium Partners, it merged with FrontYard Residential, another single-family rental company with close to 15,000 units, creating the second-largest SFR firm in the U.S. This is the kind of private equity roll-up we’ve seen across the economy. “You have a platform that exists and you just add on,” said PE expert Eileen Appelbaum of the Center for Economics and Policy Research.
Jennifer Arnold of Inquilinxs Unidxs, a grassroots housing advocacy group in Minneapolis, told me that the former Front Yard was “one of the biggest evictors nationally,” and now it’s been folded into Progress. She highlighted various problems with Progress/Front Yard homes, including consistent problems like black mold, infestations, and shorted wiring, There’s been a lack of responsiveness on repairs during COVID. “We’ve been working with a family that had a hole in their roof,” Arnold said. “They said during the pandemic they’re not making repairs unless they are serious.”
The only way residents can pay their rents, because of social distancing efforts, is electronically, which includes a $10 hidden fee for online payment. This nickel and diming is common, and with a bigger corporate landlord, it’s harder for grassroots groups to get noticed. “We find ways to get landlords to pay attention to us,” Arnold said. “With these guys we’re really struggling, there’s no way to go up the chain to find someone to talk to.” She notes that Pretium, the private equity parent, has boasted of using “cost-saving technology” to produce return on their investments.
The leaky CDC order helps these corporate landlords, which are consolidating during the crisis. Though homeowners are staying put for now, eventually when the moratoria expire, there’s going to be a large inventory of more homes, and these firms are bulking up in anticipation. Once the large landlords reach a point of concentration within a community, they have power to shape rental trends and set policy. Just a handful of evictions send “a chilling message,” said Sara Mykelbust of Georgetown University, who has been studying the single-family rental phenomenon. “Folks have to find the money” if they know they can be evicted, she said.
Even larger players like Blackstone (which once owned the largest SFR firm, Invitation Homes, and maintained a stake in them) and JPMorgan are getting back into this space, preparing for the future. There’s a big pot of $25 billion in rental assistance, passed in the last relief bill. Most people on the ground say it’s been difficult to access the funds, as there are complicated rules around them. The money goes directly to landlords, once tenants are found to be eligible. So guess who has sophisticated teams working on rental assistance? The corporate landlords.
This creates an inequitable relationship that puts large landlords in a better position than their counterparts. So does the leaky eviction order. Biden could have improved both of these, but housing policy is on auto-pilot. This is why executive action needs to be more comprehensive and more deeply considered than the current state of affairs.

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