The pandemic, among its many affronts, caused this quandary: People were put out of work, and those renting their living spaces were certain to fall behind on payments. Yet, evicting people from their homes — a typical outcome when rent goes deep in arrears — was untenable at a time when the best public health option was for people to stay at home.
So the federal government devised what amounts to an extraordinary push-pull response: It upended the normal processes of the rental housing market by temporarily forbidding evictions (expanding on state and local orders doing the same), and it approved $47 billion in emergency rental aid, to be distributed by states and localities, encouraging stability with the promise of keeping tenants and landlords square.
But then the whole arrangement threatened to fall apart just when it should have been wrapping up. The federal moratorium ended July 31, having already been extended once by the executive branch with a Supreme Court caveat that it not be extended again except by Congress. The aid, meanwhile, has been moving too slowly. Only about 7% of it had been distributed as the moratorium ended, and with millions of renters nationwide seriously delinquent on their payments, a rush of evictions seemed likely.
Having failed in its last-minute attempt to get Congress to approve an extension, the Biden administration initially let the situation agitate for a few days before taking the constitutionally dubious step of extending the moratorium on its own. The new eviction ban issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites the delta variant of the coronavirus, lasts until Oct. 3 (barring court challenges) and covers most of the country.
All of this could have been easily foreseen. All of it was foreseen. Yet government efforts that began with urgency and good intent have melted into a typical gubmint morass.
At this point, we pause to remind Minnesotans that they live in a good place. Their state government has had its own eviction moratorium in place since early in the pandemic and in June reached a bipartisan agreement to create a nuanced "off-ramp" for ending it gradually. Meaning: If you're a renter in Minnesota and you're eligible for the emergency rental aid (your household must not earn more than 80% of the median income in your county), you can ignore the noise in Washington and elsewhere. You have until the end of next May before any eviction processes can begin. If you wish to apply for aid or need questions answered, go to renthelpmn.org or call 211. (You still may be evicted starting Sept. 12 if you can afford to pay rent under the eligibility rules but haven't, or now if you've breached other terms of your lease.)
A handful of other states had foresight like Minnesota's. The federal problem is woolier, though. It would be satisfying to have somewhere to clearly point blame.
Start at the top? The Biden administration has known for months that the states are a bottleneck in aid distribution and has sought to use what leverage it can, including its bully pulpit, to influence the pace. Yet the best the administration could announce this week was an "all-agency review" to learn why the delays are occurring. Still, the fact remains that the federal government has delivered the money.
Then what's the holdup among the states? This: They received an unprecedented amount of money for an unprecedented purpose, and also the responsibility of accounting to the federal government for where it goes. The federal guidance on that wasn't complete until March. In Minnesota, the distribution effort was up and running shortly after, in April, but as in other states, the bulk of the money remains. "There's no sticks or carrots [the U.S. Treasury Department] can wield" to speed the states' work, one housing expert told the Washington Post.
Landlords and tenant advocates have suggested that the application process is onerous. A cursory glance at a flowchart describing Minnesota's process does not refute that …
… but should the states favor expedience over a careful process? Would taxpayers prefer that?
Much of the attention of the last week, including a campout on the steps of the U.S. Capitol by U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, has understandably focused on the plight of renters. Yet it's a mistake not to consider the landlords who have shouldered unpaid rent during the pandemic. Many of them are mom-and-pop operations, not conglomerates, and they have bills to pay, too. Even if the emergency rental aid eventually comes their way, it may be about $26 billion short, according to a lawsuit filed by the National Apartment Association — another complication in this growing saga.