By Jan Wolfe
(Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department on Monday urged attorneys across the legal profession to volunteer their time to assist the crush of tenants expected to be forced out of homes now that a COVID-19 pandemic-related eviction moratorium has ended.
The move came four days after the U.S. Supreme Court ended a federal moratorium aimed at keeping people housed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Democratic President Joe Biden and top members of his party in Congress blasted that decision but have not taken further emergency action to stop what could be a wave of evictions.
In a letter addressed to “members of the legal community,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said eviction filings are expected to spike to roughly double their pre-pandemic levels and that lawyers have an ethical obligation to help the most vulnerable.
“We can do that by doing everything we can to ensure that people have a meaningful opportunity to stay in their homes and that eviction procedures are carried out in a fair and just manner,” Garland said.
Garland’s letter encouraged lawyers to volunteer at legal aid providers, or to help tenants apply for emergency rent relief through government programs.
Garland said “the vast majority of tenants need access to legal counsel because far too many evictions result from default judgments in which the tenant never appeared in court.”
The nation’s top court on Thursday granted a request by a coalition of landlords and real estate trade groups to lift the moratorium by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that was to have run until Oct. 3, saying it was up to Congress to act.
Over 60 Democrats in the House of Representatives pushed for congressional leaders to take action, writing a letter urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, both Democrats, to revive the national eviction moratorium for the rest of the pandemic.
Congress approved $46 billion in rental assistance earlier in the pandemic, but the money has been slow to get to those who need it, with just $3 billion issued through June for rent, utilities and related expenses, according to U.S. Treasury data.
(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)