A federal judge blocked a nationwide eviction moratorium that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention established last year as COVID-19 lockdowns put millions of renters out of work.

U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich in Washington said the agency exceeded its authority by issuing a broad moratorium on evictions across all rental properties. “The CDC order must be set aside,” she said in a 20-page opinion on Wednesday. In recent months, others judges issued more limited rulings blocking the ban in certain jurisdictions. Friedrich’s decision goes further, saying the entire ban should be overturned nationwide.

The ruling is a setback to efforts by President Joe Biden to help renters and unwind the financial stress caused by the pandemic. The CDC moratorium, first enacted by former President Donald Trump and later extended by Biden, was designed to prevent mass evictions in the face of a public health emergency that has seen millions of Americans lose their jobs and fall deep into debt.

The Justice Department immediately moved to appeal the decision. “Scientific evidence shows that evictions exacerbate the spread of COVID-19,” said Brian Boynton, the acting assistant attorney general for the civil division. “The harm to the public that would result from unchecked evictions cannot be undone.”

Seattle and Washington state both have their own moratoriums, which are currently set to last through June. 

The state moratorium bars residential landlords from issuing evictions, except in cases of immediate health or safety risk or cases in which a landlord intends to sell the property or move in.

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Residential landlords cannot charge late fees for rent owed since Feb. 29, 2020.

State lawmakers passed a bill last month including June 30 as the end of the moratorium, but it’s possible the governor could issue a new moratorium. 

Seattle’s moratorium prohibits residential evictions and evictions of small businesses and nonprofits and is set to expire June 30. 

To help cover back rent, landlords in King County can apply for the latest round of financial assistance online now. Tenants will be able to apply for assistance later this month.

Eric Dunn, director of litigation at the National Housing Law Project, said the U.S. should move quickly to overturn the ruling or risk “mass evictions just as we seem to be on the verge of reaching herd immunity in the U.S.”

But landlord groups welcomed the judge’s decision. Paula Cino, vice president for construction, development and land use policy at the National Multifamily Housing Council, said the country is in a far different place than it was early in the pandemic. By continuing the CDC moratorium, she said, the federal government was “ignoring the progress made.”

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Bills piling up

Landlords have criticized the eviction moratorium since an early version was incorporated into the first pandemic relief package Congress passed more than a year ago.

While the government measures sought to prevent mass homelessness, there was no targeted help for mom-and-pop property owners who provide much of America’s affordable housing. For these landlords, mortgage, maintenance and tax bills have been piling up, putting them in danger of losing their buildings or being forced to sell to wealthier investors hunting for distressed deals.

Under Biden, the Treasury Department has been working relieve the financial stress caused by the pandemic, doling out almost $47 billion in relief to states and municipalities to help people cover rental arrears and unpaid utility bills.

But the rollout has moved slowly, and has varied from state to state. The eviction ban was supposed to expire at the end of the year, but the CDC extended it through June to help get the money flowing before protections ended.

Late last year, the Alabama Association of Realtors and a group of real estate agents in Georgia sued in Washington to block the moratorium, which Friedrich did on Wednesday.

In her ruling, the judge acknowledged that the the Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC have “broad authority” to enact regulations that prevent the spread of disease. Still, she said, their power is limited to inspecting, fumigating, disinfecting, sanitizing, exterminating or destroying infected “animals or articles” that pose a danger to humans.

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Authority limits

“The Public Health Service Act authorizes the Department to combat the spread of disease through a range of measures, but these measures plainly do not encompass the nationwide eviction moratorium set forth in the CDC order,” Friedrich said.

Still, the decision does not mean that renters will immediately lose protections. A patchwork of state and local laws restricting evictions remain in place. In many places, tenants who’ve fallen behind on rent may still be covered by those other measures.

Throughout the pandemic, property owners have argued that the overlapping bans have left them saddled with tenants who were delinquent even before the pandemic.

Related rulings

The ruling Wednesday is the latest legal setback for the Biden administration, which has also seen its proposed national freeze on deportations halted in court. In addition, the White House is facing other legal battles over such issues as offshore drilling, the Keystone pipeline permit and coronavirus-relief legislation.

Friedrich, a Donald Trump appointee, isn’t the first judge to weigh in on the CDC moratorium.

In February, a federal judge in Texas ruled that the government’s power to regulate interstate commerce under the Constitution doesn’t give it the right to impose a moratorium on evictions. But that ruling and a similar order in Ohio had only limited reach.

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Seattle Times reporter Heidi Groover contributed to this story.