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Federal judge strikes down CDC eviction moratorium in West Tennessee

Updated: Mar. 16, 2021 at 7:36 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Evictions can resume in Memphis, Shelby County and West Tennessee after a federal judge ruled the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) went beyond its authority in issuing an eviction moratorium.

Some call it a victory for the rights of property owners and managers.

Others call it heartbreaking and cruel to people struggling financially during a global pandemic.

The ruling comes on the heels of a report from the United Way of the National Capital Area, which showed that among U.S. cities Memphis had the third-highest number of evictions filed during the pandemic, more than 8,700.

The Bluff City was behind only Phoenix and Houston.

“We’re all really focused on working together to try to do as best we can to benefit people,” said Cindy Ettingoff, the CEO of Memphis Area Legal Services.

Ettingoff’s office has spent the last year working with tenants, landlords and the courts in Shelby County.

Many have been able to work out payment arrangements. But some 800 tenants still face immediate eviction, she says.

While the new COVID-19 relief bill will help by providing more money, Ettingoff says the money cannot be used for attorney’s fees or late fees.

“So, our hope would be that we would be able to get to some of those landlords who have tenants who are facing immediate eviction and work out a deal,” said Ettingoff.

She worries some landlord won’t be interested in working out a deal.

On top of that, U.S. District Judge Mark Norris ruled Monday that the CDC overstepped its authority by issuing an eviction moratorium or halt order.

“The court does not minimize the gravity of the pandemic nor the exigency of this hard case. It is noteworthy, however, that Congress has neither acted to amend the Public Health Act, the CARES Act, nor provided for an ongoing moratorium on evictions as recently as the adoption of the Rescue Act last week,” Norris wrote.

The CDC moratorium was first issued under the Trump administration.

Congress then extended it until Jan. 31.

After President Joe Biden took office, the CDC again extended the moratorium until Mar. 31.

“Defendants argue that, because Congress extended the Halt Order in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, it ratified the Halt Order. The court disagrees,” Norris wrote. “Congress may have done so at one point in time, but not for all time; not to the present.”

The ruling means the moratorium is no longer enforceable in western Tennessee.

Josh Kahane, the attorney for a group of landlords who sued the CDC in September, shortly after the moratorium was announced, hailed the court’s ruling.

“The Court’s ruling is both of national significance and fundamental importance. We are grateful to Judge Norris for his reasoned decision which puts an immediate end to the serious and unlawful infringement on constitutional standards and fundamentally protected rights,” said Kahane. “We are proud to have successfully defended the rights of owners – both big and small – and now call upon state and local government to take lawful efforts to help tenants remain in their homes during this uniquely challenging time and to ensure that the funds allocated under last week’s American Rescue Act are quickly and efficiently distributed to those most vulnerable and in need.”

Etttingoff says the judge’s ruling won’t change much, since the moratorium was already set to expire March 31.

“Because once I realized that there was not going to be an extension on the moratorium, as part of the current stimulus bill, I realized that come the end of March, we’re going to be really busy,” said Ettingoff. “There’s going to be an awful lot of people seeking assistance.”

The Memphis Tenants Union said it was “appalled” by Norris’ ruling.

“However, far from being struck down, the CDC moratorium should have been expanded. It prevented many vulnerable renters, who had lost employment or fallen ill, from being evicted from their homes,” the group said in a statement. “It is also not lost on us that Norris’s decision is in favor or seven Memphis area landlords and property management firms, which own more than 5,000 rental units across the area.

“In ruling in their favor, Judge Norris has prioritized the economic interests of landlords over the health and safety of renters in West Tennessee. It is not lost on us that the people who are more affected by this ruling are Black women and working-class families with children. The cruelty of these landlords in pushing to resume evictions is reflective of a broader societal disregard for Black lives, for women, and for children.”

The group believes more can be done.

They’re calling on the Memphis and Shelby County mayors to issue their own eviction moratoriums.

“We feel it’s important for our elected leaders to take a stand and to say that this isn’t right and if the state does pre-empt them, then we go to the state,” said Jeremiah Smith with the Memphis Tenants Union. “Memphis should be acting in a concerted way to protect Memphians.”

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris’ office says the mayor simply doesn’t have the authority to issue an eviction moratorium but says he has done several things to support Shelby County residents, including helping distribute $28 million in rental and utility assistance.

“The economic fallout from COVID-19 has undermined housing security for many families across our community. This is devastating. That’s why we have partnered with the City of Memphis to create the COVID-19 Emergency Rental and Utility Assistance Program to distribute more than $28 million in assistance to Shelby County residents. We anticipate this program will help nearly 1,500 households a month until funds are exhausted. We’ll continue to do all we can to support Shelby County residents during this difficult time,” said Frankie Dakin, press secretary for Harris.

WMC Action News 5 also reached out to Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s office but has not yet heard back.

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