By David Shepardson and Trevor Hunnicutt
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Tuesday issued a new 60-day moratorium on residential evictions in areas with high levels of COVID-19 infections citing the raging Delta variant after having rejected an earlier push by the White House.
The order applies to about 80% of U.S. counties that have substantial or high COVID-19 community transmission rates and covers about 90% of the U.S. population. The CDC said it will expand the protections to additional counties if they see a rise in COVID-19 cases.
"The emergence of the Delta variant has led to a rapid acceleration of community transmission in the United States, putting more Americans at increased risk, especially if they are unvaccinated," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement. "This moratorium is the right thing to do to keep people in their homes and out of congregate settings where COVID-19 spreads."
The CDC cited survey data that 6.9 million renters were behind on their rent in June and suggested mass evictions were likely without action.
The new CDC order will protect millions of renters from eviction but is slightly more limited than a nationwide moratorium that expired Saturday at midnight, and is almost certain to face legal challenges.
On Sunday, the CDC rejected President Joe Biden's request for a new scaled-down pandemic-related moratorium, citing a lack of legal authority stemming from a recent Supreme Court decision.
Biden had urged an extension so more than $40 billion in unused money approved by Congress to help pay unpaid rent can be distributed to renters and landlords and keep people in their homes.
More than 15 million people in 6.5 million U.S. households are currently behind on rental payments, according to a study by the Aspen Institute and the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, collectively owing more than $20 billion to landlords.
The National Apartment Association, with 82,600 members that collectively manage more than 9.7 million rental units last week sued the U.S. government seeking billions of dollars in unpaid rent due to the moratorium.
The group called the new eviction moratorium "an unfunded government mandate that forces housing providers to deliver a costly service without compensation and saddles renters with insurmountable debt."
A Supreme Court opinion in June suggested that legislative approval would be required to extend the moratorium. It is unclear if the court will review the new more limited moratorium differently.
Biden on Tuesday acknowledged the legal risks of moving ahead with a new moratorium but said it will probably give some "additional time" to renters as the issue makes it way through the courts.
The CDC moratorium, which was put in place in September 2020 and kept millions of people from being forced out of their homes for unpaid rent during the pandemic, was extended for another 30 days in June and officials at the time said it would be the final extension.
But with COVID-19 rates climbing, some House Democrats led by Representative Cori Bush staged a protest outside the U.S. Capitol that put pressure on the administration to reverse course and protect renters at risk.
The new moratorium will last until Oct. 3.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both Democrats, had urged a reinstatement of the ban after Congress was unable to do so.
"This brand new moratorium will provide time for the money allocated by Congress to flow, as it helps stop the spread of the virus which is worsening due to the Delta variant and protects families and landlords," Pelosi said in a statement.
Biden also called on state and local governments to extend or put in place eviction bans for at the least the next two months, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
Some states like New York and California have already extended state eviction bans past July 31.
(Reporting by David Shepardson, Trevor Hunnicutt, David Morgan and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Alistair Bell, Richard Pullin and Chris Reese)