The Centers for Disease Control issued a last minute eviction moratorium Tuesday evening, temporarily staving off an immense surge in evictions in the middle of one of the worst waves of coronavirus the U.S. has seen thus far. While the moratorium is targeted only at areas of “substantial or high spread” of the virus, Mississippi’s dangerously climbing infections have put every county in the state in one of those categories, firmly halting all evictions until transmission declines precipitously and remains low, or until Oct. 3.
The delay also gives the State of Mississippi more time to disburse rental assistance funds that could keep thousands of Mississippi families from facing homelessness, and protect the incomes of many landlords at the same time.
The Mississippi State Department of Health announced a staggering 2,821 new cases today, the fourth largest single-day report in the entire pandemic, far beyond the wildest spikes in the previous summer surge. Delta’s dramatically increased infectivity is now pushing the state’s hospital system beyond its limits, a health-care emergency that has triggered the full protection of the CDC’s new order for the entire state.
‘As Many As 200,000 Households’
The limitations of the CDC’s eviction order are strictly defined. Individual tenants must have made less than $99,000 last year or expect to make less than that this year to apply. Only evictions for nonpayment of rent are covered under the order: evictions for property damage, criminal activity or other forms of contract breach are not subject to the moratorium. The moratorium is not a form of rent forgiveness; tenants will owe back rent as well as any accrued fees and charges upon the expiration of the order.
Yet most of nearly $47 billion in rental-assistance funds from the federal government is waiting unspent, financial support that could provide a permanent solution to families facing an insurmountable wall of debt thanks to a pandemic now well into its second year. As the program funds are paid directly to landlords and utilities providing critical services to homes, the billions in assistance would provide significant relief to tenants, property owners and businesses alike.
Yesterday, before the extension of the eviction moratorium, John Jopling of the Mississippi Center for Justice highlighted the dangers facing Mississippi, now in the grip of a catastrophic surge of the delta variant of coronavirus.
“Eighteen to 20% of all renting households in Mississippi are currently behind on rent, and subject to eviction,” Jopling said on BNC News. “We think this could involve as many as 200,000 households, and without any protection these people are going to lose the only thing that stands between themselves and the risk of contracting coronavirus.”
For now, beyond the applicability requirements laid out in the document, the ban on evictions is absolute. Even evictions in progress but not yet completed must be abandoned. Violation of the CDC’s order “may be subject to a fine of no more than $100,000 or one year in jail,” with stiffer penalties for evictions that result in deaths.
Legal Challenges Certain
The CDC’s sudden action on evictions is meant to prevent a mass wave of evictions is the latest twist in a rapidly unraveling legal drama, already the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. A 5-4 decision in late June allowed the remaining moratorium to play out, with a reticent Justice Brett Kavanaugh concurring with the majority based on the premise that the CDC’s order was scheduled to expire in a matter of weeks.
President Joe Biden acknowledged that the extended moratorium may not survive the legal challenges guaranteed to come its way. However, by tailoring the extended moratorium to areas of specifically high viral spread—in truth, virtually the entire country, including almost every population center—Biden’s administration has bought states time to disburse the remaining billions in rental-assistance funds to tenants and landlords.
Mississippi received roughly $186.7 million in rental assistance from the federal government. The Mississippi Home Corporation, which is managing the disbursement of funds to tenants and landlords who qualify, did not respond to requests for an interview before press time. Mississippi renters making 80% or less of the median area income and who are facing reduced incomes or financial hardship due to COVID-19 are eligible to apply at this website, or by calling 1-888-725-0063. Landlords with qualifying tenants are also encouraged to reach out directly.
Rapid disbursement of the rental-assistance money will prove key at blunting the impact of the eviction moratorium’s end, when it finally arrives. The CDC states that “high demand and likelihood of mass evictions nationwide” persists, and further states that just less than half of all of the nation’s 6.4 million households currently behind on rent imminently fear eviction.
A mass dispersal of more than 3 million households at a time of uncontrolled viral spread could cause incalculable danger to human health and safety, the CDC asserts: “Evicted renters must move, which leads to multiple outcomes that increase the risk of COVID-19 spread.” Newly evicted families tend to move into shared housing, across state lines, toward denser urban environments, and in large part find themselves in housing much more vulnerable to outbreaks, infections and deaths.
“Throughout the United States,” the CDC document explains, “counties with the highest population of crowded households have experienced COVID-19 mortality rates 2.6 times those of counties with the lowest proportion of crowded households.”
The CDC has even more direct evidence that the eviction moratorium will save lives, referencing a joint study showing a significant increase of both cases and deaths in states which lifted eviction bans compared to those who did not. “The authors estimated that, nationally, over 433,000 cases of COVID-19 and over 10,000 deaths could be attributed to lifting state moratoria,” it states.
Whether the new criteria will protect the eviction moratorium from the legal challenges already coalescing from groups representing the nation’s landlords or not, the ban on evictions will not last forever. Mississippi now has time to head off an onslaught of evictions and pandemic homelessness. Whether it will succeed at this remains to be seen.