With President Biden’s approval, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) extended a “moratorium” on landlords evicting tenants until October 3, 2021. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky justified the measure by citing the quick spreading of the new Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus. She said that “This moratorium is the right thing to do to keep people in their homes and out of congregate settings where COVID-19 spreads. Public health authorities must act quickly to mitigate such an increase of evictions, which could increase the likelihood of new spikes in SARS-CoV-2 transmission.”
Much of the right-wing media condemned this power grab. Most criticism centered around three points. First, the measure is unconstitutional, and that President Biden admits that fact. Second, it is unnecessary financially because many jobs and government benefits are now available. Third, this unsound policy distorts the rental market to the disadvantage of both landlords and tenants.
Marxism with a Friendly Face
All these criticisms are sound. However, the more fundamental issue is the immoral and Marxist-inspired suppression of the natural law right to private property.
Marx’s second best-known statement—after his “religion is the opiate of the masses”—is that “The theory of Communism may be summed up in one sentence: Abolish all private property.”
Doubtless, President Biden and Director Walensky would bridle at being labeled as Marxists. However, the final result of their policy is a cavalier disregard of private property in light of a variant that has not become an actual crisis. It certainly favors Marx’s creed.
Private Property is a Natural Right
Plato, Aristotle, and Saint Thomas Aquinas all defended private property as a right. Writer and philosopher Edward Feser sums up their ideas.
“[C]hildren have a right to be provided for by their parents…. And since the obligations that generate the rights in question are obligations under natural law (rather than positive law), it follows that they are natural rights, grounded not in human convention but in human nature.
“[I]t is also crucial that the family maintains a significant measure of independence. These considerations entail that families be able to amass wealth to which they have permanent rights of use and transfer.”
A vital component of the right to private property is the ability to rent it, including the ability to collect the agreed-upon rent payments. This idea enjoys protection by law and custom from time immemorial.
Religious, Legal, and Traditional
Our Lord defended the rights of landlords in His parable about the owner of a vineyard who rented it out to tenants who violently refused to pay the agreed-upon price. “When therefore the lord of the vineyard shall come, what will he do to those husbandmen? They say to him: He will bring those evil men to an evil end; and will let out his vineyard to other husbandmen, that shall render him the fruit in due season. (See Matthew 21:33-41.)
The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution defends private property when it says that no person shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.”
The eviction moratorium allows that which the Constitution says the government may not do. When the government cedes to tenants the legal ability not to pay the rent, it violates the landlord’s property rights. The rental income is just as much private property as the house being rented.
Some claim the moratorium does not deprive landlords of the rent but only delays payment until later. Such a defense displays an ignorance of how the economy works. Tenants purchase the right to use a property for a period of time. Once that time has elapsed, the delinquent tenants are disinclined to pay the rent retroactively. The landlord’s only recourse is to the courts to seek payment or legal eviction of the tenants. In these cases, the landlord often fails to collect the past due rent—especially if the evicted tenants are indigent or leave town.
The Economics of Rental Homes
Analysis of the moratorium fails to understand the economics of the rental market today. Purchasing rental real estate is a popular way to accumulate property and income. Such activity benefits the landlord, potential tenants, and all society.
This rental market is a crucial aspect of American life. Over one-third of American households live in rented homes.
In addition, most landlords are not wealthy. In 2020, there were 43 million rental units in the United States. Slightly over half (22.7 million) of those units are owned by “mom and pop” landlords—individual investors. The average landlord owns three units, a figure that includes corporate landlords. These figures reveal that many more people are renting out basement or second-floor apartments in their own homes than corporations managing apartment complexes. Fifty percent of landlords report that they depend on the income from their rental properties.
Marx notwithstanding, most landlords are not plutocrats seeking to oppress workers.
Long Term Implications
The left uses the COVID crisis to expand government power in ways that most Americans would never tolerate under normal circumstances. With a wave of their pens, bureaucrats have closed schools, restaurants, and churches. When new evidence showed that some of those mandates were unnecessary and sometimes harmful, federal and state agencies paid little attention. In almost all cases, the courts—presumed protectors of the powerless—came down on the side of the regulators.
Many sought to justify the panic of March-May 2020 because the nation faced an unknown danger. That danger has now passed. It is now time to reassert natural law and the property rights that go with it.
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