Legal Challenges Are Likely After CDC Bans Some Evictions Amid Pandmic

Sep 3, 2020
Originally published on September 3, 2020 8:27 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

There are a couple of significant developments happening with the CDC this week. Earlier in the program, we heard how the agency has asked states to get ready to distribute a potential coronavirus vaccine as soon as late October. The CDC has also issued an order to temporarily stop home evictions nationwide, which, yes, sounds like it's not necessarily the agency's mandate. But the CDC's using authority from the Public Health Service Act of 1944 and making the case that evictions could increase the spread of COVID-19. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin wondered if this was legal.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: A bold move - that's how health law professor Erin Fuse Brown of Georgia State University described this order from CDC and the way it uses the agency's legal authority.

ERIN FUSE BROWN: The regulations under the Public Health Service Act provide the CDC the power to take certain action to control communicable disease, particularly when it crosses state lines.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The way the law was written, she says...

FUSE BROWN: It lists different examples such as inspection, fumigation, disinfection, sanitation, pest extermination - so the destruction of animals.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Did you hear housing or evictions? They're not in there. With the eviction order, she says, CDC is basically arguing...

FUSE BROWN: If you can take steps to prevent animals or other types of, you know, fleas from spreading infectious disease, then could you also take some steps to prevent people from being forced to crowd.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Since crowding helps spread COVID. The order applies to people earning less than $100,000 a year if they say they would become homeless or move in with friends or family if evicted. And it wouldn't provide any financial relief to renters or landlords. That concerns Tia Sheree Gaynor, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati.

TIA SHEREE GAYNOR: If someone can't afford to pay their rent, they're not going to be able to pay four months of rent at once when this ends - right? - when the moratorium is over.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Congress would need to pass a law to provide that financial assistance. Whether this is legal or not is up in the air. Legal aid groups across the country issued statements in response to the order, saying in large part, it's unclear what this means. We're still trying to figure it out.

Many hailed the effort to halt evictions, but legal challenges are likely and may include lawsuits that argue CDC does not have the authority to do this. Those legal challenges, says health law professor Lindsay Wiley of American University, could have implications that stretch far beyond housing and evictions. A lot rides on whether judges decide this order is legal.

LINDSAY WILEY: Those decisions, either way - whether they uphold it or strike it down - are going to have really big implications for the federal role in the pandemic response going forward.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: For example, she says...

WILEY: If you get a decision upholding this order, that could embolden a future Biden administration to issue a national mask mandate.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: On the other hand, if a judge strikes this down, that could tie the hands of the federal government to take nationwide action to try to curb the spread of the virus, whoever is in the White House. The order is set to go into effect tomorrow.

Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News.

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