Senate to consider extending and expanding eviction moratorium

June 15, 2020:-  Before the Massachusetts Legislature imposed an eviction moratorium, Congress enacted a limited moratorium of its own. It lasts 120 days and is confined to properties participating in federal programs including, at the very outer edge, properties with federally-backed mortgage loans. CARES Act, section 4024 (page 574 of the PDF). The 120-day period started running on March 27 so expires on July 25. Democrats in Congress want to not only extend the duration of the moratorium but also expand it to cover all rental properties.

Legislative largesse

The bill that passed the House (where the Democrats have a majority) and is currently before the Senate (where the Republicans have a majority) is titled the HEROES Act.

The name is apt. Just reading the bill requires a degree of fortitude bordering on heroism. It consists of 1,815 pages that explain how the federal government should go about spending $3 trillion (trillion with a T), a sum that even nowadays seems quite a large amount of money. According to the Endowment for Human Development, a stack of one trillion dollar bills would reach almost 68,000 miles. So a stack of three trillion dollar bills would reach 204,000 miles. Driving that distance at 60 mph would take 3,400 hours, i.e. 142 days, and that’s with no rest stops (bad idea). No wonder it took Congress 1,815 pages.

Where would the proposed $3 trillion go? The potential recipients are legion, so I will name but a few that may prove of particular interest to Bay Staters.

For example, $50 million would go to the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) which every year helps fund entities in Massachusetts such as Community Legal Aid (CLA) and Northeast Legal Aid (NLA) to the tune of about $1.5 million and $1 million respectively. If you are a housing provider who has ever had to take tenants to Housing Court for, say, nonpayment of rent (back when housing providers were allowed to do that sort of thing), you may be familiar with CLA and NLA. They are the attorneys who represent the tenants. Similarly, the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association also receives LSC funding of approximately $2 million per year, which is exactly the kind of voluntarism I could volunteer for.

Under the HEROES Act another $4 million would go to the Fair Housing Organization Initiative. Earlier this year, HUD (which administers the program) awarded $300,000 to Community Legal Aid (yes, the same Community Legal Aid that got $1.5 million from the federal Legal Services Corporation). HUD also doled out $300,000 to Massachusetts Fair Housing Center, Inc. That’s the corporation that is suing Massachusetts in federal court over the Lead Paint Law, which it alleges discriminates against families with children. For a list of reasons why that lawsuit represents a less-than-judicious use of taxpayers’ money and everyone’s time, click here.

In addition to spreading the wealth around, the HEROES Act would prohibit evictions.

A year-long, nationwide eviction moratorium

In the PDF version of the HEROES Act, the provisions about the eviction moratorium start at page 961 in section 110203 of Division K, Title II (titled “Protecting Renters and Homeowners from Evictions and Foreclosures).

What would this part of the bill do if the Senate approves? For a period of 12 months after enactment, it would prohibit “legal action to recover possession of the covered dwelling from the tenant for nonpayment of rent or other fees or charges.”  The term “covered dwelling” means dwellings covered by section 802 of the federal Fair Housing Act, i.e. all rental units.  Yes, all rental units in the country, even in those States that have addressed the issue — and continue to do so — in their own way.

Federalism 101

Whether judicially, legislatively, or by executive order, many of the States have enacted eviction moratoria of some kind and duration. In a country of approximately 330-million people across 50 States, there has been some variety.  Utah imposed a ban whereas Oklahoma did not. New York extended its ban whereas Colorado did not. California? We’ll see. May Congress supplant these various State-level approaches, replacing them with a one-size-fits-all rule?

Congress does not have the authority to make laws governing absolutely each and every form of human activity that may occur in the United States. Its powers are limited, believe it or not (and for many in Congress it seems to be “not”).

As James Madison explained: “[T]he proposed government cannot be deemed a national one since its jurisdiction extends to certain enumerated objects only, and leaves to the several States a residual and inviolable sovereignty over all other objects.” Federalist No. 39. Sovereignty is shared, the Constitution circumscribes the powers of Congress, and the Constitution does not give a articular power to Congress it remains with the States. The lines of demarcation may be blurry but they are not invisible.

Among the enumerated powers of Congress is the power to regulate interstate commerce. This is what allows Congress to legislate in the area of housing so as to reduce invidious discrimination. Activities within a singe State that may have a a substantial and harmful effect on interstate commerce can come within the clause’s scope, e.g. racial discrimination in housing.

james madison 1
James Madison

Flexible it may be, but the Commerce Clause has its bounds. For example, it does not extend beyond economic activity to economic inactivity, as the Supreme Court held in NFIB v. Sebelius. In an area where the States are already acting separately, and where there is no invidious racial discrimination or other activity that has a substantial and harmful effect on interstate commerce, the answer should be no.

That seems to be the opinion of Senate Republicans at this point, who consider the bill a liberal wish list. When the GOP-majority Senate takes up the HEROES Act in July (or perhaps August according to this article) it seems unlikely to vote to extend and expand the eviction moratorium. But, as we have all learned in the past few months if we didn’t know it already, sometimes changes come thick and fast.

Conclusion

The CARES Act’s eviction moratorium applies to housing with some kind of federal connection, albeit tenuous in some cases. Each State has supplemented that federal law with a response of its own, tailored to local needs. Those State-level laws may be unpalatable and arguably unconstitutional, e.g. Chapter 65 in Massachusetts. But they are examples of federalism in action, and typify the way our system is supposed to work. Expanding the federal moratorium is both unnecessary and unconstitutional.

If you believe that the Senate should reject the effort to impose a nationwide, year-long moratorium on evictions, please call your U.S. Senators and let them know.