WASHINGTON (AP) — 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. The White House has said state and local governments have been slow to push out that federal money and is pressing them to do so swiftly after the eviction moratorium expired over the weekend.
But progressive lawmakers who have been camped for days outside the Capitol with dozens of supporters said Biden should act on his own to extend the eviction moratorium.
“What we need is for the White House to actually do, to do the thing — and they need to actually extend the moratorium,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said at the Capitol.
As the eviction crisis mounts, the White House has insisted that Biden is doing all he can under legal constraints to keep renters in their homes and landlords paid what they are owed. While as many as 3.6 million Americans are 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 White House has turned its attention outward, accusing 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, who oversees the administration’s coronavirus relief plans, told reporters Monday. “There is simply no excuse, no place to hide for any state or locality that is failing to accelerate their emergency” rental assistance.
The focus on states comes as Biden faces 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.
One Democrat, Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri, has been camped outside the U.S. Capitol in protest, joined overnight Monday by 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.
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 White House said the president would have supported an extension of the moratorium but pointed to the Supreme Court, which signaled in a 5-4 vote in late June that it wouldn’t allow further extensions. Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that Congress would have to act to extend the moratorium.
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.
While the administration is still investigating legal options to forestall evictions, officials said their options were limited. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that the CDC, which issued the eviction ban, was “unable to find legal authority for a new, targeted eviction moratorium.”
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.
Sperling said the administration will continue looking for additional legal avenues to keep people in their homes. Yet he stressed the complexity of the problem by also noting that the Trump administration developed guidelines for providing aid to renters and landlords that were unworkable. Those guidelines which required extensive documentation were changed once Biden was in office.
“This is not an easy task,” Sperling said. “We as a country have never had a national infrastructure or national policy for preventing avoidable evictions.”
Democratic lawmakers said they were caught by surprise by Biden’s decision to end the moratorium, creating frustration and anger and exposing a rare rift with the administration. The CDC indicated in late June that it probably wouldn’t extend the eviction ban beyond the end of July.
Rep. Maxine Waters, the powerful chair of the Financial Services Committee, has been talking privately for days with Yellen and urged the Treasury Secretary to use her influence to urge states to push the money out the door.
But Waters also called on the CDC to act on its own. “I don’t buy that the CDC can’t extend the eviction moratorium – something it has already done in the past! Who is going to stop them?” Waters said in a tweet. “C’mon CDC – have a heart! Just do it!”
Congress was unable to pass legislation swiftly to extend the ban, which expired at midnight Saturday
Bush, a St. Louis-area congresswoman, has been leading a protest at the Capitol since the eve of the expiration. She has been joined at times by other top progressive Democrats urging action. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts were among those stopping by to visit with the freshman lawmaker outside the Capitol.
Associated Press writer Alexandra Jaffe contributed to this report.