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CDC Issues Temporary Halt On Evictions, Citing Coronavirus Risks

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC, is banning evictions because of the pandemic. The move is a little surprising for a public health agency, though it could be a lifeline for many renters. Landlords, on the other hand, are left wondering how they will pay their bills. NPR's Chris Arnold joins me now.

Hey, Chris.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK, so help me understand this. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is ordering landlords all over the country to not evict tenants who might not be able to pay their rent. What gives them the authority to issue an order like this?

ARNOLD: Well, they say they have the authority under what's called the Public Health Service Act of 1944 - going back a ways here. But that gives the government broad power to stem the spread of communicable diseases, and we're certainly in the middle of that situation. So we talked to Lawrence Gostin. He's a professor of global health law at Georgetown University.

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: This is imaginative and creative use of the Public Health Service Act. I'm pleased to see it because I think the COVID-19 pandemic has really shown that the federal government and public health agencies do need to have a uniform national response.

ARNOLD: And he says, look - the basic idea is forcing people out into homeless shelters or crammed together living with relatives, I mean, that's very likely to get a lot of more people sick. And it is striking, though, that there's been a lot of criticism of the CDC for, so far, being kind of noodle-armed and wimpy, if you will, in the fight against the pandemic. It's issued guidance, but that's been voluntary. It's like, well, you know, you might want to do this. And so states and businesses are doing whatever they want all over the country. But here the CDC is taking a much tougher stance.

KELLY: OK. I'm assuming, though, that the stance is not just to let everybody think, OK, you can just all stop paying your rent now...

(LAUGHTER)

ARNOLD: No, I don't think anybody...

KELLY: ...As attractive as that might sound. Who actually qualifies here?

ARNOLD: All right. So to qualify, you have to be facing a financial hardship, and renters have to sign a declaration. They have to say, basically, OK, look - I've tried to get unemployment benefits. And you have to agree, also, to make partial payments, whatever you can afford, so you're not just paying nothing to your landlord. You have to say, I don't make more than about a hundred thousand dollars a year or twice that in a joint tax return. And you have to say, look - if I get evicted, I really don't have another good option other than homelessness or going to a shelter or living in close proximity in some way to more people because that's what tends to spread this disease.

KELLY: You've been talking to renters. What are they telling you?

ARNOLD: Well, I think this will sum it up well. I called one of them today and told her about this because she had not heard about it before.

HEATHER PANIZO: Oh. Oh, wow. Oh, my God, that is awesome.

ARNOLD: That's Heather Panizo (ph) in Houston, Texas. She's actually disabled. She gets, like, a small disability check. She's got a 4-year-old son. And after her partner lost his job in the pandemic, she fell behind on the rent by a couple of months, and the landlord filed to evict her.

PANIZO: And there's just been so much stuff on stuff on stuff. I feel like it's piling on top of me. And, honestly - I don't know - it just feels like somebody got, like, all these big boulders and just lifted them up and took some of the pressure off, you know?

KELLY: Aw. I mean, you can feel how great that must feel for her to have those big boulders just coming off her shoulders. However, I'm guessing landlords, hers and others, who are maybe looking at not collecting rent are not so happy.

ARNOLD: Not happy at all. The short version from the landlords is - who is supposed to pay for this? You know, Democrats in Congress had a plan to do something very similar with the moratorium, but they had a hundred-billion-dollar pile of money for assistance to renters and landlords to pay for all of that rent that wasn't getting paid. That's not a part of this order.

KELLY: Right.

ARNOLD: Advocates, too, would like to see that because they don't want to see someone like Panizo...

KELLY: Right.

ARNOLD: ...Owing six months' back rent. So bottom line - this puts pressure on Congress to come up with some more help for people that are struggling.

KELLY: OK. Thank you, Chris.

ARNOLD: Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: NPR's Chris Arnold. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.