A number of states have seen their pandemic-era eviction moratoriums morph from an emergency stopgap measure into institutionalized limits on evictions. Not Missouri.
The Show-Me State was one of just eight that did not adopt any eviction moratorium during COVID-19. Several state lawmakers are proposing to go further with a series of bills that would strip local governments and courts of their power to impose their own eviction bans.
“The bottom line is [eviction moratoriums] put landlords in an unfair situation. We talk a lot about government or bureaucratic agencies picking winners and losers. And I certainly felt like that that was done unlawfully,” said Rep. Chris Brown (R–Kansas City) according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which first reported on the bills Friday.
The county circuit courts that cover Kansas City and St. Louis, Missouri’s two largest cities, both adopted their own local eviction moratoriums during the early months of the pandemic. Those were soon replaced by the federal eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in September 2020.
When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the CDC eviction order in August, the St. Louis County Council responded by passing its own weekslong eviction moratorium. It re-upped this eviction ban for a few weeks in December in response to a rise in cases caused by the omicron variant.
Brown’s legislation, House Bill 1682, would specifically ban courts from suspending eviction proceedings of their own initiative without authorization from a state law. Another house bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Murphy (R–St. Louis County) would likewise forbid localities from banning evictions without the state Legislature’s approval.
These bills have received a negative reaction from some Democratic legislators and progressive activists.
In written testimony on Brown’s bill, Sarah Owsley, policy and advocacy director for Empower Missouri, credited eviction moratoriums with saving lives during the pandemic and preventing large numbers of out-of-work renters from losing their homes.
Like most pandemic mitigation measures, it’s not clear how effective eviction moratoriums were at preventing COVID-19 cases and deaths. Widely circulated studies showing a massive lifesaving effect of eviction bans have been roundly criticized as flawed and sloppy.
Oft-repeated predictions that the country would see an unprecedented “eviction tsunami” in the absence of moratoriums have also not played out. Evictions ticked upward after the CDC’s eviction order was struck down. But they remain below pre-pandemic averages almost everywhere in the U.S., including Missouri.
Even places that were desperately slow at distributing federally funded rental assistance did not experience an eviction spike.
Owsley argues in her written testimony that eviction moratoriums are rare policies that can be necessary for “weather and health emergencies.”
Prior to COVID-19, that is how eviction moratoriums operated. Their history during the pandemic suggests that eviction bans can also be incredibly sticky policies that, once imposed, are hard to back away from. The federal eviction moratorium was extended five times before it was finally struck down by the Supreme Court.
Missouri’s eviction legislation is part of a trend. As Reason‘s Eric Boehm has reported, lawmakers across the country are proposing and passing legislation that limits the emergency powers of governors and public health officials. Too often during the pandemic, these legislators argue, executives used those emergency powers to place extreme and persistent limits on business owners’ property rights.
That includes landlords, who were often forced by eviction moratoriums to provide effectively free housing to unscrupulous or even abusive tenants long after the immediate emergency of COVID-19 had faded.
By requiring the state Legislature to sign off on any moratorium, Missouri’s proposed ban on eviction bans will make that a little harder to get away with come the next emergency.