The US Supreme Court on Thursday (local time) ended the Biden administration's latest moratorium on evictions.
This puts hundreds of thousands of tenants at risk of being put out of their homes, reported The New York Times.
The court issued an eight-page majority opinion, an unusual move in a ruling on an application for emergency relief. The court's three liberal justices dissented.
"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has imposed a nationwide moratorium on evictions in reliance on a decades-old statute that authorizes it to implement measures like fumigation and pest extermination," the opinion said. "It strains credulity to believe that this statute grants the CDC the sweeping authority that it asserts."
The decision puts hundreds of thousands of tenants at risk of losing shelter, while the administration struggles to speed the flow of billions of dollars in federal funding to people who are behind in rent because of the coronavirus pandemic and its associated economic hardship.
Only about USD 5.1 billion of the USD 46.5 billion in aid had been disbursed by the end of July, according to figures released on Wednesday, as bureaucratic delays at the state and local levels snarled payouts, reported The New York Times.
Justice Stephen G Breyer, writing for the three dissenting justices, faulted the court for its haste during a public health crisis.
"These questions call for considered decision-making, informed by full briefing and argument," he wrote. "Their answers impact the health of millions. We should not set aside the CDC's eviction moratorium in this summary proceeding."
The majority said the issues were fully considered and straightforward. "It is indisputable that the public has a strong interest in combating the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant," the opinion said. "But our system does not permit agencies to act unlawfully even in pursuit of desirable ends."
"If a federally imposed eviction moratorium is to continue," the opinion said, "Congress must specifically authorize it."
The administration had at first concluded that a Supreme Court ruling in June had effectively forbidden it from imposing a new moratorium after an earlier one expired at the end of July.
Congress did not act. But after political pressure from Democrats, a surge in the pandemic and new consideration of the legal issues, the administration on August 3 issued the moratorium that was the subject of the new ruling, reported The New York Times.
The last moratorium -- which was put in place by the CDC in September and expired on July 31 after being extended several times by Congress and Biden -- was effective at achieving its goal, reducing by about half the number of eviction cases that normally would have been filed since last fall, according to an analysis of filings by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.
But landlords have said that the moratoriums saddled them with billions of dollars in debt. The challengers in the current case -- landlords, real estate companies and trade associations led by the Alabama Association of Realtors -- argued that the moratorium was not authorized by the law the agency relied on, the Public Health Service Act of 1944, reported The New York Times.
That law, the challengers wrote, was concerned with quarantines and inspections to stop the spread of disease and did not bestow on the agency "the unqualified power to take any measure imaginable to stop the spread of communicable disease -- whether eviction moratoria, worship limits, nationwide lockdowns, school closures or vaccine mandates."