For CDC to Repair Its Reputation, It Must Get Out of Housing (and Politics)

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The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was once considered one of the most trusted public health institutions in the world, but its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has changed that. The agency may want to restore the public’s trust that it bases its recommendations and guidelines on science, but there is little evidence it has taken steps to improve the bureaucratic problems that caused it to mishandle critical aspects of the pandemic response. Nor has the CDC quelled concerns about how politics influence its decisions and priorities, as was made clear when the agency this week extended a moratorium on evictions in defiance of the courts. 

As I wrote back in April, access to stable housing is crucially important to a person’s welfare, especially during an emergency like a pandemic. But the CDC has neither the economic nor, apparently, the legal expertise to evaluate the long-term ramifications of policies aimed at keeping people in their homes. While a moratorium may provide temporary relief for renters, it may also make access to safe, affordable housing more difficult for low-income renters in the future by causing foreclosures, delays on necessary repairs, the accumulation of debt from back rent, and waves of demand for affordable housing as moratoria end.

More importantly, putting the CDC in charge of housing policies further distracts it from its core mission: infectious disease prevention and management. Arguably, it was this loss of focus or “mission creep”—a long-festering problem at CDC—that rendered the agency so unprepared for the COVID-19 outbreak in the first place.

In the beginning of the pandemic, the CDC blamed its blunders on a lack of funding. But, as I pointed out, the CDC’s budget had actually been increasing steadily over the years and was larger than under previous administrations. Then the narrative shifted to blaming President Trump for spreading misinformation and “silencing” CDC experts. Certainly, Trump’s meddling, wild speculations on treatments, and conflicting statements caused public distress and confusion. But the CDC’s own mixed messaging didn’t help nor did the problem of political meddling end when Trump left office.

Since the CDC moratorium on evictions was issued in September 2020 and extended several times, it has been challenged several times in court. In May, a U.S. District Court ruled CDC exceeded its statutory authority, functionally invalidating the moratorium. However, the judge issued a stay, allowing the moratorium to remain in effect while the government appealed the ruling.

At the end of June, the CDC extended the moratorium again, but apparently recognizing its lack of authority, stated that it was “intended to be the final extension of the moratorium.” Days later, the Supreme Court ruled against landlords who wanted the stay lifted and the eviction moratorium ended immediately.

The Court’s 5-to-4 decision was apparently influenced by the CDC’s declaration that it would not issue further extensions to the current moratorium. In his concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh agreed with the four dissenting Justices that CDC had exceeded its authority, but he chose to vote against ending the moratorium immediately because “CDC plans to end the moratorium in only a few weeks, on July 31, and because those few weeks will allow for additional and more orderly distribution of the congressionally appropriated rental assistance funds.” Of course, that is not what happened.

Despite appropriating more than $46 billion for emergency rental assistance, most of the funds remain locked up by red tape, with states having distributed just $3 billion of that assistance by the end of June. And this bureaucratic logjam caused something of a political crisis for congressional Democrats who had campaigned on providing relief to those in need. The White House insisted that it was up to Congress to pass legislation preserving the moratorium, while the progressive wing of his party demanded the White House use its authority to extend it. Bowing to this political pressure and in defiance of a majority of the Supreme Court, Biden and the CDC gave in. Despite promising to not extend the moratorium after July 31, that is exactly what the CDC did, days before it was set to expire.

In an April debate series at CQ Researcher, I argued that if politicians want to reap the political rewards of helping people stay in their homes during an emergency, they should do so by shouldering the cost directly: providing direct assistance rather than shirking the financial responsibility onto a smaller (and not well-liked) group of property owners. The compelling counter argument to this, provided by Eric Dunn of the National Housing Law Project, is that it takes time for such assistance to make it into the hands of renters and owners, leaving them vulnerable to losing their homes in the interval. Clearly, Dunn was right.

States have had more than a year and half to set up mechanisms to distribute emergency relief funds provided by Congress, but as Reason’s Christian Britschgi reported, states are moving at a snail’s pace in getting those dollars into renters’ hands. Michigan, for example, only started accepting applications for rental assistance in March, while New York only launched its application system in June. Of the 15 counties surrounding the District of Columbia, five had not sent out a single check as of May 30. They have the money. They just need to figure out how to get it where it needs to go. But with the eviction moratorium continued indefinitely, will they? Or will they hold onto the money in the hopes that they can repurpose it for other projects down the road?

Perhaps the best approach would be to let the states decide whether or not to keep their own eviction moratoria and set up a federal program for direct assistance for renters in states that choose not to. In that case, Congress will have to actually do its job and enact legislation directing one of the federal agencies, like the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to establish and run such a program.

Lawmakers should not force the responsibility for such decisions onto the CDC, especially at a time when the agency is rightfully trying to distance itself from political wrangling and ought to be focused on addressing its own internal problems and staying focused on its core mission of stopping infectious diseases.