Government officials often believe they have a magic wand they can wave to make problems go away. Uh huh. During the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s top officials, who are supposed to be laser-focused on public health and science issues, decided to venture far beyond their congressionally mandated mission and expertise and wave their wand to dabble in economic planning.
The results of this bureaucratic meddling in state- and local-level decision-making have often proven to be economically destructive. In a case of unintended consequences, the CDC superseded its authority and has extended multiple times an eviction moratorium order well past its expiration date.
While the intent behind the moratorium might have been sensible early in the pandemic — when officials wanted to limit people moving around — there is no rational justification for it to simply be extended indefinitely. The moratorium has a real impact on property owners and landlords who have their own bills to pay and families to feed.
Worse, the half-baked policy has placed them in danger of bankruptcy, as the CDC has continued extending the moratorium even as the economic situation changes. In many cases, landlords are only able to collect less than half of the rent they’re owed, yet are still legally required to keep up with repairs for tenants who are thousands of dollars behind on rent payments. And it doesn’t end there. Municipalities and community services are feeling the pinch from resulting lost tax revenue no longer generated from rental properties.
If the moratorium isn’t soon rolled back, America will likely experience a housing shortage with many small landlords going out of business or simply not renting their properties in the future. Many big cities are already facing a housing shortage, and forcing many landlords to exit the market will exacerbate the shortage and drive up housing prices.
Federal courts are recognizing the CDC’s seemingly eternal moratorium as overreach. A federal judge recently threw out the moratorium, writing, “[b]ecause the plain language of the Public Health Service Act … unambiguously forecloses the nationwide eviction moratorium, the court must set aside the CDC order.” The Biden administration swooped in immediately to appeal the ruling but should take no comfort in the fact that this was the fifth legal decision against the moratorium.
As these court cases have noted, the CDC does not have the authority — nor should they — to implement a virtually blanket moratorium along these lines — with no seeming end. As a former mayor and official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, I have seen firsthand that local officials are best suited to address the unique problems and circumstances facing their own communities. It doesn’t make any sense for government officials in Atlanta to set housing policy for California, Texas or Ohio.
In fact, states are already stepping up to fill any holes left by the inevitable end of the moratorium. South Carolina and Florida are among the states operating rental assistance programs for struggling residents. The federal government has also stepped in to provide rental assistance. These programs are a far better solution than the CDC moratorium as they allow local officials to tailor assistance while ensuring landlords still receive rent. This is a much more efficient solution than tying the hands of property owners and giving them no recourse to collect rent that is owed.
Regrettably, the eviction moratorium is just one example among many of CDC overreach during the pandemic. The agency is still trying to make fishermen and children at summer camps wear masks even though the adverse effects of mask-wearing outweigh any conceivable gain in these cases. There is also proof that CDC officials colluded with an influential teachers’ union to shape school reopening guidelines owing not to scientific concerns but to political pressure. Instead of operating an apolitical agency, today’s CDC’s brass seems hellbent on transforming an agency that uses science as its only compass into a purely political extension of the administration.
While it is impossible to dismiss the good that CDC’s dedicated employees have done during the pandemic, its leadership’s actions have gone too far. State and local officials should be at the forefront of issues like an eviction moratorium and rental assistance, but the CDC has usurped congressional authority in taking on this role itself. As shots continue to go into arms and we get our economy back to work, it’s time to return to serious discussions about the proper role and limits of federal agencies.
• Ken Blackwell, a former mayor of Cincinnati, also served as deputy undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
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