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Activists Protest U.S. Supreme Court Ruling On Evictions

eviction moratorium protest.jpg
Ariel Worthy
Protesters gather at the Allegheny Commons Park to protest the Supreme Court's decision to end the eviction moratorium.

A small group of protesters gathered Saturday night in Pittsburgh to speak against the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to allow evictions to resume across the country, blocking President Joe Biden’s administration from enforcing a temporary ban that was put in place because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The court's action Thursday ends protections for roughly 3.5 million people in the United States who said they faced eviction in the next two months, according to Census Bureau data from early August.

Most of the protesters wore Party for Socialism and Liberation shirts while they gathered in Allegheny Commons Park on the North Side. They said housing is a right and should be available for everyone.

“The Supreme Court is not a neutral institution,” said June Wearden, a member of the PSL. “How could it be a neutral institution when it sides with a landlord’s right to evict a tenant over that tenant’s right not to be on the streets in the middle of a pandemic?”

PSL member Kit Baril, who organized the protest, said their goal now is to get more people on a local level to sign a petition started by the national Cancel the Rents movement.

The petition calls on Biden to declare a national cancellation of all rents and mortgages for homeowners, small landlords and small businesses for the duration of the pandemic; for no shutoff of gas, electricity and water utilities; and eminent domain over vacant properties to house the homeless or people in precarious housing situations, including the undocumented and victims of domestic violence.

“The housing market was already gentrifying before this, and then, bam, COVID happens,” Baril said. “More people are unemployed, more people are at risk of losing their homes. And so we need to mobilize on a local level.”

The court said in an unsigned opinion that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reimposed the moratorium Aug. 3, lacked the authority to do so under federal law without explicit congressional authorization. The justices rejected the administration's arguments in support of the CDC's authority.

“If a federally imposed eviction moratorium is to continue, Congress must specifically authorize it,” the court wrote.

The three liberal justices dissented. Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the three, pointed to the increase in COVID-19 caused by the delta variant as one of the reasons the court should have left the moratorium in place.

“The public interest strongly favors respecting the CDC’s judgment at this moment, when over 90% of counties are experiencing high transmission rates,” Breyer wrote.

On evictions, Biden had acknowledged the legal headwinds the new moratorium would likely encounter. But Biden said that even with doubts about what courts would do, it was worth a try because it would buy at least a few weeks of time for the distribution of more of the $46.5 billion in rental assistance Congress had approved.

The Treasury Department said Wednesday that the pace of distribution has increased and nearly a million households have been helped. But only about 11% of the money, slightly more than $5 billion, has been distributed by state and local governments, the department said.

The administration has called on state and local officials to “move more aggressively” in distributing rental assistance funds and urged state and local courts to issue their own moratoriums to “discourage eviction filings” until landlords and tenants have sought the funds.

A handful of states, including California, Maryland and New Jersey, have put in place their own temporary bans on evictions. In Allegheny County, President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark asked the state Supreme Court to extend a moratorium through October.

The high court hinted strongly in late June that it would take this path if asked again to intervene. At that time, the court allowed an earlier pause on evictions to continue through the end of July.

But four conservative justices would have set the moratorium aside then and a fifth, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, said Congress would have to expressly authorize a new pause on evictions. Neither house of Congress has passed a new evictions moratorium.

The administration at first allowed the earlier moratorium to lapse July 31, saying it had no legal authority to allow it to continue. But the CDC issued a new moratorium days later as pressure mounted from lawmakers and others to help vulnerable renters stay in their homes as the coronavirus’ delta variant surged. The moratorium had been scheduled to expire Oct. 3.

The earlier versions of the moratorium, first ordered during Trump’s presidency, applied nationwide and were put in place out of fear that people who couldn’t pay their rent would end up in crowded living conditions like homeless shelters and help spread the virus.

The new moratorium temporarily halted evictions in counties with “substantial and high levels” of virus transmissions and would cover areas where 90% of the U.S. population lives.

The Biden administration argued that the rise in the delta variant underscored the dangers of resuming evictions in areas of high transmission of COVID-19. But that argument did not win broad support at the high court.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.