Coronavirus and takings

City governments are flirting with a ban on evictions during the coronavirus pandemic. I doubt, however, that doing so comports with the Constitution’s takings clause or, perhaps, the contracts clause.

San Jose has introduced legislation that will ban evictions due to un/underemployment resulting from coronavirus. Seattle’s socialist firebrand, Kshama Sawant, calls for similar action. Her letter, though, betrays the truth behind many proposed emergency measures–she’s leveraging the crisis to further her political agenda, particularly her hatred of capitalism. In the letter, she froths: “The status quo under capitalism is deeply hostile to the majority of working people, and it would be unconscionable to place the further burden of the Coronavirus crisis on those who are already the most economically stressed.” Never mind that the status quo in the absence of capitalism would be grinding poverty.

But, in any case, the proposal to ban evictions and force landlords to renew leases as the pandemic sweeps across the states raises serious constitutional concerns. Even in times of crisis, observance of constitutional norms remains essential. In part, this is because laws passed as emergency measures tend to hang about long after the emergency subsides. New York rent control began as a wartime measure, for instance, and that curse still plagues the New York rental market. The other reason, of course, is that the Constitution is built for just these moments. The pressure to invade rights, after all, comes when things are not going well. As Justice Sutherland once put it, “If the provisions of the Constitution be not upheld when they pinch, as well as when they comfort, they may as well be abandoned.”

Forcing landlords to either renew leases or forego eviction for lease violations likely raises at least two constitutional problems: takings and impairment of contractual obligations. While such laws don’t literally seize property, they effectively impose a servitude on landlords’ property, stripping them of control over the disposition and occupation of their land. When an essential attribute of property ownership is destroyed by regulation in this manner, the government must offer compensation. We already know this compensation requirement applies during national emergencies. During World War II, for instance, the Supreme Court held that the United States had to compensate property owners and leaseholders when it temporarily seized factories for wartime production.

The contract clause problem is also straightforward: barring landlords from enforcing lease terms impairs obligations under pre-existing contracts. The contracts clause, though, has been severely undermined in recent decades, such that a showing of a compelling interest like mitigating the impact of the pandemic may well satisfy the flaccid demands of the modern contracts clause.

It may seem profoundly harsh to impose constitutional constraints on governments trying to resolve a crisis. But three things ought to be kept in mind.

First, an emergency certainly means that some will face a heavy burden, but that fact tells us nothing about how that burden should be allocated. Why should landlords bear the costs? Indeed, As the Supreme Court said in Armstrong v. United States, the takings clause exists to avoid imposing societal burdens on specific individuals: “The Fifth Amendment’s guarantee that private property shall not be taken for a public use without just compensation was designed to bar Government from forcing some people alone to bear public burdens which, in all fairness and justice, should be borne by the public as a whole.”

Second, we should keep in mind that lease agreements already account for risk. That’s baked into the price and terms that give rise to a mutually agreeable arrangement between parties. To simply allow one party to slip out of the terms of the lease distorts that arrangement.

Third, the takings clause does not bar emergency measures, including the seizure of property, but only upon just compensation. No exigency should excuse cities like San Jose or Seattle from compensating for the costs they’re hoisting upon landlords. And in the case of the contracts clause, the government could still honor existing leases by acting as a guarantor for tenants who can’t pay the rent.

All of these points apply to a world in which landlords do not voluntarily exercise leniency. But I think we’ll find that most landlords are forgiving during a temporary crisis. Most landlords have an extreme aversion to evicting tenants–it’s the nightmare, last-ditch option that they try hard to avoid. That, plus the simple dose of compassion that many landlords will feel inspired to offer, may do more toward helping see us through than any emergency measures.