What is the difference between socialist economic policies and CDC public health measures? In the case of the federal eviction moratorium, it turns out it is none at all.
Congressional Democrats failed to pass a federal eviction moratorium into law this week – but they did manage to pressure President Biden into extending the CDC moratorium.
Democrats saw a moratorium as a legislative priority, framing it as a welfare measure to help millions of renters said to be facing eviction. When that that failed, Biden and the CDC came to the rescue. But the current justifications for keeping the moratorium are entirely different from the rational the Centers for Disease Control presented when they instituted the "emergency" measure two years ago.
According to CDC, the moratorium was designed solely to prevent the spread of COVID. Indeed, the CDC does not have any authority to make economic policy. But the seamless transition now being witnessed from a supposed epidemiological intervention backed by experts to a typically partisan soak-the-rich policy suggests the moratorium was always progressive politics masquerading as public health.
In extending the moratorium this week, the administration predictably cited rising COVID rates. But they were clearly using a public health emergency as a substitute for economic legislation – and this is what the moratorium always was.
Even as a safety measure, the moratorium was poorly supported by evidence. The CDC’s public health justification was based on entirely on a response to a Census question, in which one-third of renters self-reported that, in the hypothetical event they were evicted, they would move in with friends and family. Thus, the CDC reasoned, evictions could increase the spread of COVID. There is no actual evidence of the extent to which evictions increase crowding, let alone fuel the spread of COVID.
The CDC went further, claiming that evictions could contribute to homelessness, and thus crowding at homeless shelters – and more COVID.
For this claim, the evidence consisted of a single self-reported survey of people in homeless shelters in one county, roughly one in ten of whom said they wound up there as a result of eviction. Even assuming this data to be representative and accurate, it hardly establishes a strong connection between eviction and homelessness, let alone crowding in shelters.
Forget "the science" – this isn’t even social science.
The moratorium’s concern about what people winding up in what it calls "congregate housing" stops when it comes to penalties. Landlords facing jail time over attempting to enforce their property rights. So much for stopping the spread.
In another stretch by the CDC, those wishing to take advantage of the moratorium had to claim that if evicted, they would have "to move into a new residence shared by other people who live in close quarters because I have no other available housing options." But under the CDC’s definition of "available housing," an apartment that costs $1 more is not regarded as "available."
All of this might have at least been intelligible during the lockdown period, when movement was generally restricted. But now the only movement tenants are barred from is out of their apartments for non-payment of rent.
The CDC had to frame the moratorium as a public health measure, because its statutory authority does not extend to economic dictats. Indeed, the statute empowering the agency to implement emergency public health measures mentions standard tools like quarantines – not any kind of measure whatsoever, so long as they label it public health.
That is why courts have been striking down the moratorium – and the administration can no longer extend it without legislation. Separately, another court ruled that the measure also exceeds the federal government’s constitutional authority, which is limited to matters relating to interstate commerce. The CDC did not even suggest that evicted tenants will be moving to out-of-state shelters.
Whatever its defects as a constitutional and public health matter, the moratorium turns out to be entirely consistent with Democrats’ views of social justice.
The eviction moratorium has always been an abuse of the COVID crisis for to implement unrelated policies.
We expect politicians to "never let a crisis go to waste." But when public health officials do so, it erodes the public’s ability to trust even their more sensible policies.