A divided US Supreme Court lifted the Biden administration’s moratorium on evictions, ending protections for millions of people who have fallen behind on their rent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Saying landlords were suffering “irreparable harm,” the conservative-controlled court ruled late Thursday that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lacked the authority to impose the moratorium under the decades-old federal law the agency was invoking. The decision was made amid a spike in COVID cases around the country.
“It would be one thing if Congress had specifically authorized the action that the CDC has taken. But that has not happened,” the court said in an unsigned opinion. “It strains credulity to believe that this statute grants the CDC the sweeping authority that it asserts.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the administration was disappointed with the decision, crediting the CDC’s eviction moratoriums with saving lives.
“As a result of this ruling, families will face the painful impact of evictions, and communities across the country will face greater risk of exposure to COVID-19,” Psaki said in a statement Thursday night.
Liberal justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor dissented, faulting the court for deciding the issue without full briefing and argument.
“The public interest strongly favors respecting the CDC’s judgment at this moment, when over 90 percent of counties are experiencing high transmission rates,” Breyer wrote for the group. “That figure is the highest it has been since at least last winter.”
The decision is the court’s second blow to Biden this week. On Tuesday, the justices left in force a ruling that requires the administration to reinstate former president Donald Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy, which requires asylum seekers to wait in that country while their cases are being processed.
The court had left intact a previous CDC moratorium in June, but Justice Brett Kavanaugh said at the time that congressional authorization would be required for any further extension.
Congress didn’t act and progressives instead pressured President Joe Biden to issue a new, slightly narrower moratorium. The ban applied in counties with “substantial or high rates of community transmission” of the coronavirus — currently more than 95 percent of the country.
Justice Department lawyers argued that the Delta variant of the virus had heightened the importance of the eviction ban to ensure that a wave of people isn’t forced into more crowded accommodations.
In announcing the revised moratorium on Aug. 3, Biden acknowledged that the legal odds were long. But he said the ban was worth pursuing in part because the litigation would give local governments additional time to distribute more than $45 billion in rental assistance Congress has granted.
The challengers, a group of landlords and real estate trade associations from Alabama and Georgia, said Biden’s remarks showed the administration was flouting the rule of law.
The Treasury Department said Wednesday that only $1.7 billion in rental assistance was released last month, bringing the total so far to $5.1 billion.
Representative Cori Bush, a first-term Missouri Democrat who camped out on the Capitol steps to protest the July 31 expiration of the previous moratorium, called on Congress to act.
“We already know who is going to bear the brunt of this disastrous decision — Black and brown communities, and especially Black women,” Bush said in a statement.
Representative Maxine Waters, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, said she would “immediately set to work on a legislative solution to address issues with the slow implementation of the emergency rental assistance program.”
“My new proposal would ensure that both renters and landlords can independently apply for emergency rental assistance so that landlords get paid their back rent and that the program works with less bureaucracy and red tape,” Waters said in a statement issued after the ruling.
The administration has been relying on a legal provision that authorizes the secretary of health and human services to “make and enforce such regulations as in his judgment are necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases.” The CDC is housed within the Health and Human Services Department.
The case is Alabama Association of Realtors v. Department of Health and Human Services, 21A23.
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