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Biden leans on governors and mayors to deflect heat over evictions

An escalating blame game between President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats over the expiration of the federal eviction ban has left local officials frustrated and scrambling to deal with a wave of renters now at risk of losing their homes.

The Biden administration on Monday rebuffed calls from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats to revive the eviction moratorium, which expired Saturday, after unsuccessfully leaning on Congress to enact its own ban last week.

The White House said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lacked legal authority to reinstitute the eviction prohibition — even on a limited or targeted basis — because the Supreme Court had made clear it believed the CDC overstepped its authority.

Facing a deadlock, Pelosi and White House officials pleaded with governors and mayors to fill the void, in part by speeding up the delivery of more than $46.5 billion in federal rental assistance that has languished as state and local governments struggled to stand up programs to deliver the funds. Local officials complained that the finger-pointing was unhelpful.

“We don’t need the recriminations,” said Michael Thurmond, chief executive officer of DeKalb County, Ga., which issued its own 60-day county-wide ban after the federal moratorium expired this weekend. “We just need to come together and save these families from a potentially catastrophic set of circumstances.”

The chaos and buck-passing triggered by the expiration of the eviction ban Saturday left millions of hard-hit renters in danger of losing their homes in the coming days and weeks. Some local governments rushed to stand up new safeguards but many governors and mayors were unlikely to enact their own eviction bans. It was unclear how quickly they would speed up the delivery of rental assistance funds.

About 7.4 million adult tenants said they were behind on rent in the latest U.S. Census Bureau survey, which was taken during the last week of June and the first week of July

Local officials said they were seeing an immediate impact from the expiration of the ban. Greg Keller, senior vice president at Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation, said his office saw a surge in requests for aid in recent days.

“My phone has been ringing off the hook today,” he said.

The fallout came after the Biden administration last Thursday announced that it would not extend the ban with three days left before its expiration. The White House called on Congress to intervene, but Pelosi and other top Democrats — led by House Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) — were unable to muster the votes for an extension before leaving Friday for August recess. More than a dozen House Democrats balked at a proposed extension, which also faced intense lobbying opposition from landlords who said the moratorium cost them billions of dollars each month. Senate Republicans were also expected to sink an extension bill.

Over the weekend, Pelosi rejected the White House argument that the administration lacked the legal authority to act on its own. Pelosi and her leadership team on Sunday called on Biden to extend the ban through Oct. 18. It came as progressives including Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) also implored Biden to reconsider and staged a protest on the steps of the Capitol.

The White House on Monday stood its ground, with adviser and American Rescue Plan coordinator Gene Sperling telling reporters that Biden had “double, triple, quadruple checked” what options the administration had to halt evictions.

Sperling said Biden asked the CDC on Sunday to review whether it could impose a targeted 30-day eviction moratorium on counties with higher rates of coronavirus cases. But the CDC was “unable to find the legal authority,” he said.

Instead, the administration called on state and local governments to extend or institute their own bans for at least the next two months. The White House also directed the Treasury Department and other agencies to continue examining why state and local governments have struggled to distribute billions of dollars in federal rental assistance funds.

As of the end of June, state and local officials had disbursed only 6.5 percent of the $46.5 billion Congress allocated for tenants and landlords.

The White House on Monday gave no explanation for waiting until the last minute to ask Congress to pass new legislation. Sperling dodged questions about the administration’s timing, saying it only became clear “going into the end of last week” that the rise of the Delta variant would be particularly harmful to those facing evictions.

“This was us responding to a new reality,” Sperling said.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen will brief House Democrats Tuesday morning on the distribution of federal rental assistance, Pelosi told her caucus Monday. Pelosi also directed members, who departed Washington on Friday until September, to press officials in their districts to speed up the disbursement of the funds.

Thurmond, the CEO of DeKalb County, said the 60-day eviction moratorium that went into effect locally this weekend would give his county more time to get aid into the hands of renters financially hobbled by the pandemic. The county had distributed 11 percent of its rental aid funds as of July 29.

Local officials have struggled to set up rental aid programs, and it was unclear Monday to what extent things would change in the absence of the federal ban.

“Local jurisdictions — DeKalb and many others — we just did not have the infrastructure set up to distribute rental assistance at this scale,” said Thurmond, a Democrat. “These programs had to be built from the ground up and we had to do it in the middle of a pandemic.”

One in three Americans live in states where they have some additional protection because of state and local eviction moratoria, Sperling said Monday.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office said it would not reinstate a statewide moratorium, calling eviction bans a “means to an end.”

“A longer-term solution is the distribution of congressionally-appropriated rental assistance funds,” said Christina Pushaw, a spokesperson for the Republican governor.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, said at a press conference earlier Monday that “we’re pretty well-positioned to make sure we help people deal with some of these issues and consequences” after the state poured money into an eviction-diversion program.

Even in New York, where state-wide eviction restrictions are in place through August, officials appeared hesitant to immediately pursue an extension.

State Sen. Brian Kavanagh, a Democrat who introduced legislation establishing the renter protections in December, said in an interview Monday that he was “neither backing an extension nor backing letting it expire.”

“I don’t want to make a decision today, based on the information we have today, of what should happen at the end of August,” he said.

Lisa Kashinsky, Gary Fineout and Janaki Chadha contributed to this report.

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