Supreme Court tied Biden’s hands on eviction moratoriums but Congress is not helping

President Joe Biden’s bid to placate progressive members of his party by extending a moratorium on evictions has crumbled following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling declaring the executive branch action unconstitutional.

Courts in some states quickly followed with orders for sheriffs to resume evictions of tenants who are long overdue paying their rent, leaving part of the nation unable or unwilling to protect families whose principal breadwinners became financially strapped because of the pandemic.

Biden was initially reluctant to extend a eviction moratorium because Supreme Court justices previously made it clear that they would not uphold any future moratoriums without specific congressional approval.

The House of Representatives failed to act before heading off for summer vacation, which prompted progressive protesters to stage a round-the-clock vigil on the Capitol steps to draw attention to the millions of Americans at the brink of homelessness.

It was Congress, not Biden, that failed to respond once the Supreme Court issued its warning. Now, rhetoric will not stop a coming tsunami of evictions but legislating can.

Landlords across the country have been forced for months simply to eat the billions of dollars in costs rung up by their non-paying tenants, and they have justifiably reached the limits of their tolerance. Owners of apartment buildings and multi-family homes are not without expenses required to maintain those properties, so it should not be assumed that they can afford a sustained revenue cutoff.

At the same time, families are in fear of returning to potentially crowded workplaces and schools as a more deadly and contagious variant of the coronavirus is infecting the population, leaving the public highly skeptical about any close-quarters mingling.

Congress approved $46 billion for rental assistance to help tenants and landlords make it through the pandemic’s first wave but by mid-August, less than ten percent of that money had reached households, the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLHC) reports.

Across New Jersey, the group reports that there is a shortage of rental homes affordable and available to extremely low income households, whose incomes are at or below the poverty guideline or 30% of their area median income, so moving is not a realistic option for those who have fallen behind on rent.

NLHC said 301,776 households, or 25 percent of New Jersey’s renters, are among the extremely low income category.

Many of those households are severely cost burdened, spending more than half of their income on housing. Severely cost burdened poor households are more likely than other renters to sacrifice other necessities like nutritious food and health care to pay the rent, and to experience unstable housing situations like evictions.

Most states have distributed less than 10% of the funds they were allotted. New Jersey is among them, which means lots of money sat in the Treasury while landlord frustrations grew and tenants inched closer to the inevitable day when sheriff’s officers armed with eviction orders would come pounding at the door.

The first order of business, is for Gov. Phil Murphy and Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver to take a few days off the campaign trail so they can distribute the federal aid and avert a homelessness crisis hat could catapult coronavirus infections, which are already rising sharply again, employee fears of returning to their jobs are only going to grow.

According to the Treasury Department, 60% of the emergency rental assistance program recipients are at or below 30% of the median income in their areas. For the most part, the landlords who are owed back rent lack the money to keep afloat indefinitely.

The members of Congress who led the pressure campaign to make Biden extend the moratorium now must go to work writing legislation, negotiating with colleagues, and using their powers of persuasion to convince at least 218 representatives and 51 senators that a new moratorium is urgently needed.

Winning over Congress promises to be a lot harder than doing TV interviews while camping out on the Capitol steps but if this is the only option likely to pass Supreme Court muster, it is worth a try.

Citizens should rally to their aid, because in a democratic-republic, we are all responsible for the action and inaction of our government.

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