Throughout the COVID-19 episode, we have had many reminders of one of the permanent truths of government: It is far, far easier to end an emergency than to end an emergency program — as evidenced, most recently, by progressive calls to extend the moratorium on evictions.
It is important to bear in mind who imposed the moratorium and why: It was imposed by the Centers for Disease Control as a measure meant to reduce transmission of the coronavirus. There have always been significant legal questions about whether the moratorium could be rationalized as a regulation of interstate commerce (since rental agreements are overwhelmingly intrastate transactions). Moreover, even assuming arguendo the validity of such a measure imposed by the executive branch (given that the Constitution empowers Congress, not the president, to regulate commerce), there is significant reason to doubt that the moratorium decree was within the statutory authority Congress has granted to the CDC. But all that aside, the time for this stated justification has clearly passed. COVID-19 infection rates have collapsed, about half of the population has been fully vaccinated, and more than three-quarters of the population has received at least one dose of a vaccine. While it is possible that the facts on the ground may change, for now the evidence all suggests that the eviction moratorium is no longer justified as a public-health measure, if it ever was.
It is not much justified as an economic measure — and never really was. Our left-wing friends talk about landlords as though they were all twirling their mustaches like Snidely Whiplash when not rolling in piles of gold ducats like Scrooge McDuck. In reality, many landlords are small businesses or individuals, some of whom have low incomes. Low-income landlords tend to derive a greater share of their household incomes from rent than do higher-income landlords, meaning that eviction moratoria do not prevent economic hardship but merely transfer it from one party to another.
Rent subsidies and other emergency measures were in many cases both fitting and prudent during the lockdowns, when many people who wanted to work simply couldn’t, and unemployment peaked at nearly 15 percent. But unemployment has fallen rapidly since then, and the May report found the jobless rate under 6 percent. Wages have been rising. If anything, our current economic problem is a shortage of workers rather than a shortage of jobs. Even as wages have gone up and unemployment has gone down, the workforce participation rate has remained stubbornly low, far below its pre-COVID level. What that means is that there are jobs to be had and paychecks to be earned, but a great many potential workers have decided to stay on the sidelines.
Ending the eviction moratorium and other emergency measures may help the labor market return to something closer to normal. But more important is the fact that it will return to Americans control of their own property, preventing unnecessary losses for rental companies and the outright economic ruination of some smaller landlords. State and local rental-assistance programs remain available to those in need, along with the usual array of federal housing supports.
It is time to wind down the crisis — and the crisis mentality, too.