Emergency situations can justify actions that would normally be inexcusable. The social order is not damaged if a lost hiker breaks into an unoccupied cabin to avoid freezing to death. The damage comes if the exception becomes the norm and cabin owners lose all protection from intruders.
In the early months of the pandemic, the federal government was doing everything it could think of to limit the damage from COVID-19. One measure was a ban on evictions by landlords at a time when many renters were suddenly out of work and unable to pay.
Originally part of the coronavirus relief package passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump, the moratorium was extended in September by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Congress later extended it again, and when that extension lapsed, the CDC renewed it until the end of June. Some states, including California, New York and Illinois, imposed their own bans.
The overall policy made sense during a grave public health crisis. Depositing millions of tenants onto the streets and into crowded shelters would have accelerated the spread of the virus. The moratorium originated when cities and states were enforcing lockdowns. People who lose their homes can't very well isolate at home.
But the ban created widespread hardship for the people who provide these homes: landlords. Many are small-business people who depend on rental payments to cover mortgages, property taxes, utilities and maintenance. They fill a vital role in the economy. Their reward has been to incur a burden that properly belongs to all of us.
But in June, a decision by the Supreme Court blocked any extension beyond July 31 without legislation. President Joe Biden has chosen to respect the ruling. In this, he parted ways with tenants rights groups and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who urged him to defy the court and maintain it.
Biden said he wanted an extension to be approved by Congress, as the court requires. But that wouldn't fix the fundamental injustice of compelling property owners to provide free housing.
A lawsuit filed by Realtors associations in Alabama and Georgia says that landlords are losing $13 billion each month in unpaid rent, and the total damage could exceed $200 billion.
It may be worth these sums to avert a flood of evictions. If so, though, the cost should be borne by taxpayers at large, not loaded onto one disfavored group.
Our leaders have recognized as much, up to a point. Since December, Congress has approved $47 billion in assistance to renters so they could meet their obligations. But the amount falls well short of what is needed. Not only that, distribution has been glacially slow.
The Treasury Department recently reported that only 12% of the money found its way to tenants and landlords in the first half of this year. More than half of tenants are not even aware that they can get emergency aid, according to the Urban Institute.
"There can be no excuse for any state or locality not to promptly deploy the resources that Congress appropriated to meet this critical need of so many Americans," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. A spokeswoman for the city of Los Angeles told the Washington Post that it stopped taking applications because of "unprecedented demand that far exceeded the program funding."
With inadequate resources and bureaucratic delays, landlords are required to keep going without compensation. They can't collect rent from millions of tenants, and they can't remove them to accommodate residents who will pay. Renters protected by the moratorium are still liable for back rent, but landlords will have a devil of a time trying to get what they are owed.
The main rationales for the moratorium are obsolete. The economy has rebounded strongly in recent months, allowing the majority of people who lost their jobs to return to the payrolls. The public health risks of evictions have declined since free vaccines became universally available.
The harm, however, remains — and it goes beyond the immediate financial loss to property owners. Rental housing is bound to be lost as some landlords are forced to sell. Potential buyers will have to weigh the risk of being victimized by future moratoriums. In the long run, tenants will also lose out.
The federal moratorium was intended to address a dire short-run calamity. But it may end up creating a permanent one.
Follow Steve Chapman on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13.