White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki sought to defend the legality of the Biden administration’s new, 60-day eviction moratorium on Wednesday, stressing that the effort was temporary and narrower in scope than the previous federal iteration, which expired last weekend.
“The president would not have supported moving forward if he did not support the legal justification,” Psaki said Wednesday. “He’s old-school in that way.”
Her remarks come after the CDC on Tuesday announced a 60-day eviction moratorium that protects renters in communities with "substantial" and "high" levels of COVID-19 transmission. That moratorium, slated for expiration on Oct. 3, currently protects 80% of U.S. counties and 90% of the population, according to data from the CDC.
“This is a narrow, targeted moratorium that is different from the national moratorium,“ Psaki told reporters during Wednesday's press briefing. “This is not an extension" of the federal moratorium.
“The President shares their desire, their commitment and their interest in keeping renters, and people in their home," Psaki continued. "And that is exactly why he took the step of asking the CDC to look into what legal pathways forward, and yesterday's announcement was a reflection of that. We don't control the courts, we don't know what they will do."
"The emergence of the Delta variant has led to a rapid acceleration of community transmission in the United States, putting more Americans at increased risk, especially if they are unvaccinated," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement. "This moratorium is the right thing to do to keep people in their homes and out of congregate settings where COVID-19 spreads."
"It is imperative that public health authorities act quickly to mitigate such an increase of evictions, which could increase the likelihood of new spikes in SARS-CoV-2 transmission," Dr. Walensky added. "Such mass evictions and the attendant public health consequences would be very difficult to reverse."
“We obviously don’t control what the courts do,” Psaki said, noting that the previous Supreme Court decision was not related to public health and instead focused largely on relations between landlords and renters. “But this is different in that it is more targeted. It is focused on counties with higher substantial case rates to protect renters, and the CDC ultimately decided to adopt it."
“I would also note that the conditions have changed: The rise of the Delta variant, especially in communities where there are large numbers of unvaccinated individuals, where there are growing case numbers, is certainly something that has raised the alarm for us; has raised the alarm for members of Congress, and has certainly added to the need to take this additional step," Psaki said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified a legal authority for a new and different moratorium that would be for areas with high and substantial community transmission of COVID-19.
"Any call for a moratorium, based on the Supreme Court's recent decision, is likely to face obstacles," Biden said Tuesday, referring to a recent decision from the high court that ended the previous moratorium. "I have indicated to the CDC, I would like to look at other alternatives than the one that the court declared was not allowed to continue."
“We are all aware of the Supreme Court decision at the end of June, and what was outlined in their decision at the end of June," Psaki added Wednesday. "This is also going to be a temporary, temporary solution regardless – and a longer term solution will require legislative action – but the president's message to anyone who's been a passionate advocate is that he shares their concern, he shares their commitment; he wants renters to be able to stay in their homes. And that's why we took this step over the last few days.”
The extension helps to heal a rift with liberal Democratic lawmakers who were calling on executive action to keep renters in their homes as the delta variant of the coronavirus spread and a prior moratorium lapsed at the end of July.
"I applaud the CDC for imposing an eviction moratorium for the vast majority of the population," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement Tuesday. "I particularly applaud Rep. Cori Bush who understands what it's like to be evicted and who took her passion and turned it into amazingly effective action."
Rep. Bush, a first-term member of Congress from Missouri, camped outside the U.S. Capitol since the weekend to protest letting the eviction ban expire. She was joined overnight Monday by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Jimmy Gonzalez, D-Calif., and others who gave her a brief reprieve so she could rest indoors. Bush also had a brief conversation Monday at the Capitol with Vice President Kamala Harris.
"On Friday night, I came to the Capitol with my chair," Rep. Bush wrote on Twitter Tuesday evening. "I refused to accept that Congress could leave for vacation while 11 million people faced eviction."
"For 5 days, we’ve been out here, demanding that our government acts to save lives," she continued. "Today, our movement moved mountains."
Bush also shared a photo of herself and her colleagues – Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Gonzalez and Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y. – sitting on the steps of the Capitol, with the caption "Grateful."
Administration officials had previously said a Supreme Court ruling stopped them from setting up a new moratorium without congressional backing, saying that states and cities must be more aggressive in releasing nearly $47 billion in relief for renters on the verge of eviction.
In a statement released Monday, the White House emphasized that the federal government has provided billions in funding to keep renters in their homes, but it accused states and cities of being “too slow to act,” preventing that aid from making its way to tenants whose livelihoods have been upended by the pandemic.
“The president is clear: If some states and localities can get this out efficiently and effectively there’s no reason every state and locality can’t,” Gene Sperling, the administration's COVID relief bill rollout coordinator, said. “There is simply no excuse, no place to hide for any state or locality that is failing to accelerate their emergency” rental assistance.
The new policy came amid a scramble of actions by the Biden administration to reassure Democrats and the country that it could find a way to halt potential evictions.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen briefed House Democrats Tuesday on the administration’s efforts to prevent widespread housing evictions after a moratorium lapsed, but lawmakers protesting outside the U.S. Capitol said more needs to be done, intensifying pressure on President Joe Biden to act.
Yellen told Democrats on a private call about the work underway to ensure some $47 billion in federal housing aid approved during the COVID-19 crisis makes it to renters and landlords. She provided data so that lawmakers could see how their districts and states are performing with distributing the relief, according to a person on the call.
The Treasury secretary tried to encourage Democrats to work together, even as lawmakers have said Biden should act on his own to extend the eviction moratorium, someone on the private call told the AP.
The AP reported that Yellen said on the call she agrees “we need to bring every resource to bear” and that she appreciated the Democrats’ efforts and wants “to leave no stone unturned.”
But progressive lawmakers, who have been camped for days outside the Capitol with dozens of supporters, are trying to pressure the administration to put the moratorium back in place.
"The White House knew about this for over a month,” New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview with Spectrum News. “This is not all Republicans’ fault when House Democrats hold the majority. I mean, that's just the truth of the matter."
"It's just simply unacceptable, we cannot be abandoning the up to 11 million Americans that are in need,” Ocasio-Cortez added. "Particularly when the emergency rental assistance ... has not gotten out."
The administration had repeatedly resisted another extension because the Supreme Court appears likely to block it. The nation's highest court ruled in a 5-4 decision in June that it would not back a further extension; Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted in the decision that a further expansion of the pause would require Congressional action.
As the eviction crisis loomed, the White House frequently said that Biden was doing all he could under legal constraints to keep renters in their homes and landlords paid what they are owed. While as many as 3.6 million Americans were at risk of eviction, the administration has emphasized that money has already been approved and many Americans will be able to stay housed with the efforts underway.
The focus on states comes as Biden faced stinging criticism, including from some in his own party, that he was was slow to address the end of the moratorium. Some people were at immediate risk of losing their homes.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had called the prospect of widespread evictions “unfathomable.” The Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and other progressive lawmakers intensified pressure on the White House to issue an immediate extension.
Late last week, Biden announced he was allowing the ban to expire, pushing Congress to act, but lawmakers were unable to swiftly rally the votes as even Democrats questioned prolonging the eviction ban for a few more months.
The CDC put the eviction ban in place as part of the COVID-19 response when jobs shifted and many workers lost income. The ban was intended to hold back the spread of the virus among people put out on the streets and into shelters.
The White House noted that state-level efforts to stop evictions would spare a third of the country from evictions over the next month.
Mass evictions could potentially worsen the recent spread of the COVID-19 delta variant as roughly 1.4 million households told the Census Bureau they could “very likely” be evicted from their rentals in the next two months. Another 2.2 million say they’re “somewhat likely” to be evicted.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.