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With Senate Republicans still deadlocked over how or whether to renew protections for Americans struggling due to the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump stepped into the breach on Saturday, signing an executive order on evictions and foreclosures and issuing several memos on other policy issues.
In its solo act, the White House pledged to defer payroll taxes, waive student loan payments, and authorize a new program to boost unemployment benefits by $400 a week. Trump also promised action on behalf of renters left vulnerable by the expiration of the federal moratorium on evictions and foreclosures first passed by Congress under the CARES Act.
“I’m protecting people from eviction,” Trump said on Saturday. “You’ve been hearing a lot about eviction, and the Democrats don’t want to do anything having to do with protecting people from eviction.”
Yet Saturday’s executive order doesn’t renew the federal moratorium on evictions that expired in July. In fact, it doesn’t authorize any new action on evictions or foreclosures at all. Rather it instructs the leaders of several agencies, namely the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to look again at existing funds or options for protecting renters, without promising any specific relief.
For example, the order states that the secretary of Health and Human Services and the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “shall consider” whether any temporary measures to prevent evictions are necessary to stop the spread of Covid-19. Far from reinstating a moratorium, this would seem to question whether such an action on evictions is warranted. The order further states that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Housing Secretary Ben Carson “shall identify” any and all available funds for struggling renters and homeowners.
Asked for details about funds that might be made available, or how HUD might otherwise discourage evictions, a spokesperson responded: “President Trump and Secretary Carson have done everything in their power to ensure that no American will lose their home due to any hardship caused by this pandemic. This executive order further underscores that commitment.”
Trump probably doesn’t have the constitutional authority to unilaterally expand the moratorium passed by Congress, which blocked evictions and foreclosures for a sizable share of tenants, including those living in public housing or using housing vouchers. The CARES Act moratorium also covered renters living in properties with a federally backed mortgage (meaning loans that are owned, insured, or guaranteed by a federal entity). But advocates say that the administration does have the power to renew the federal eviction moratorium, and late in July, officials from some 170 different state and national housing organizations issued a letter to Carson at HUD calling on him to extend the protections. The White House executive order neither extends nor expands this moratorium.
Diane Yentel, the president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, described Trump’s new executive order as an “empty shell of a promise” in an email.
“The President alluded to ‘stopping evictions,’ but the executive order fails to provide any meaningful relief to the millions of renters who are at risk of losing their homes,” Yentel said in her statement. “President Trump failed even to use his existing authority to reinstate the limited federal eviction moratorium that expired on July 24, which covered 30% of renters nationwide.”
Deborah Thrope, deputy director of the National Housing Law Project, added: “Trump’s executive order does nothing to help the 30 to 40 million people who could become homeless by the end of the year, and in fact creates confusion for renters and homeowners alike. The order outrageously asks HUD to look under the couch cushions to solve a massive housing crisis.”
For tens of millions of renters, the need is now dire. An estimated 34% of renters nationwide had little to no confidence they could pay the August rent, according to a survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau in July. Few states have eviction protections in place, meaning that with the lapse of the federal moratorium, many households may find themselves on the brink of disaster — especially as Senate Republicans have not renewed the $600-per-week boost to unemployment benefits that expired last month.
Trump also pledged to expand unemployment benefits unilaterally if House Democrats would not agree to a solo bill apart from any spending package. Yet the White House memo does not add any additional money to existing unemployment benefits but rather authorizes new supplemental benefits — a program that will take months to set up, according to The Washington Post.
Some housing advocates say that any action to block evictions must be paired with aid to help renters repay past-due rent and make landlords whole. About half of landlords across the country are small businesses or mom-and-pop operations; in addition to their own mortgages, rental property owners are still responsible for taxes, insurance and payroll throughout the crisis.
“The order would do nothing to help Americans pay rent and would place the financial burden on millions of small businesses while making an eviction crisis even more likely later this year,” said David W. Dworkin, president and CEO of the nonprofit National Housing Conference, referring to Trump’s Saturday edict. “A moratorium alone is a temporary and unfunded mandate that hurts landlords now at the expense of tenants later.”
House Democrats have pledged billions to support vulnerable renters. The HEROES Act passed by the House in May includes $100 billion in emergency rental assistance and funding for 100,000 new emergency housing vouchers. The legislation would also renew the moratorium on evictions for nonpayment for one full year and expand its terms to cover virtually all rental housing. While Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have sought to take action on smaller, individual bills instead, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is holding out for the full $3 trillion package.
“President Trump’s executive order is a failure and nothing more than a PR stunt,” said Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, an author of the housing legislation in the HEROES Act, in a statement to CityLab. “It does not extend the federal eviction moratorium and does not provide the emergency rental assistance that millions of families need to pay their bills and stay in their homes during and after this crisis. If Republicans and President Trump really want to prevent an eviction crisis and help families stay in their homes, they must work with us to pass the HEROES Act and provide new resources for emergency rental assistance.”
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