On Saturday, the CDC‘s COVID-induced eviction moratorium expired, meaning that landlords would have once again been able to evict tenants who did not pay rent. The CDC’s policy was imposed through executive action alone, and for a while it appeared that the White House accepted the expiration, after rulings in multiple courts that the executive branch lacks the power to unilaterally eliminate rental agreements in the name of COVID (a power originally asserted by the Trump administration, for which I worked). Five Supreme Court justices noted the CDC exceeded its authority in issuing the moratorium, so the White House’s eagerness to irritate them seems puzzling, short-sighted, and destined for failure.
The Biden administration’s unilateral decision to extend the moratorium was preceded by a solemn political demonstration (some may call it a “stunt”), where multiple members of Congress slept on the Capitol steps in protest, demanding that renters continue lawful rent avoidance. Never mind that the federal government has already set aside $46.5 billion dollars (enough to cover 9.3 million renters who are $5,000 behind) to assist renters. And never mind that the CDC’s eviction moratorium was less effective than the previous CARES Act moratorium or local moratoriums—the Government Accountability Office found that “jurisdictions without separate state or local moratoriums experienced larger increases in eviction filings” during the CDC-issued moratorium.
So when do the rent-ban proponents propose that renters resume payments? Paying rent is easier now than ever, as poverty rates have dropped to their lowest level on record. This cannot go on forever. Vaccinations are available to every adult who wants one, job openings are at an all-time high and American parents are being paid hundreds of dollars a month per child. Public transportation is back, daycares are open and the White House has repeatedly said that schools should be reopened this fall. Why not recognize this as the return to normalcy that it is?
The eviction ban was simply a delay of evictions, meaning rent was still technically accumulating during the entire grace period. But when a landlord comes to collect 12-plus months of rent, the likelihood that the average renter has piles of cash lying around gets slimmer the longer the government delays lifting the moratorium. So, landlords will have to spend time in court recouping what they can, ruining the credit of tenants in the process—or Congress will cave in to pressure and forgive the debt, transferring taxpayer money to landlords in the end.
That appears to be the Democrats‘ end goal: free rent. School has long been free, which means breakfast and lunch for millions is free, with some state and federal programs expanding during the pandemic. Health care is free for many. During the pandemic, higher-education loans have been free. And during the pandemic, federal unemployment benefits assured an extra $300 on top of state unemployment funds every single week. The vaccine is free. COVID testing is free. We’re sort of getting used to this.
The problem is, none of these things are truly free. The government does not have its own money, apart from some interest on loans and use of its natural resources. It has money only if individuals fork over their own money in taxes. Tax the rich, you say? America’s billionaires are worth $4.4 trillion, enough to fund federal, state and local spending for only 6 months. Nor do “free” programs help expand the tax base. For example, under indefinite eviction bans, landlords who would normally be making money—and paying taxes on that money—are left with either nothing or their aid check in a government-controlled system.
So the government borrows and borrows to pay for “free” programs. By 2050, 25 cents of every federal dollar spent will go toward interest payments on the national debt. And as Reason Magazine put it: “Like a monthly credit card payment that eats into a household budget, federal debt means less money to buy other things.” That means instead of bigger homes, faster innovation, cleaner transportation, and more advanced classrooms, we (and our children) get dilapidated infrastructure, lower wages, and outdated technology.
Even if there ever was an appropriate time to pause rent payments, that time has come and gone. Rent is a normal household expense, like groceries or gasoline. Someone has to pay for these goods and services, and that “someone” cannot sustainably be the government, over and over again. Government spending, if not limited to times of real need, will trigger a debt crisis that leaves all Americans, particularly the poorest Americans, with a substandard quality of life. It sounds like a country song, but economic reality reminds us we should go to work, pay rent and save money so one day we won’t have to.