The US Supreme Court has ended a federal moratorium on residential evictions imposed by President Joe Biden's administration to prevent people being left homeless during the coronavirus pandemic.
The justices, who in June had left in place a prior ban that expired at the end of July, granted a request to lift the moratorium imposed by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that was to have run until October 3.
The moratorium was challenged by a coalition of landlords and real estate trade groups, who argued the law on which the CDC relied on did not allow it to implement the current ban.
"It strains credulity to believe that this statute grants the CDC the sweeping authority that it asserts," the court said in an unsigned opinion issued on Thursday.
"If a federally imposed eviction moratorium is to continue, Congress must specifically authorise it," the court said.
The three liberal justices on the court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, all dissented.
The White House said it was disappointed by the decision and urged states, local governments, landlords and Cabinet agencies to "urgently act" to help prevent evictions.
Roughly 3.5 million people in the United States said they faced eviction in the next two months, according to Census Bureau data from early August.
The high court signalled in June it thought the moratorium was on shaky legal ground, and that such a policy needed to be enacted by Congress rather than being imposed unilaterally by the executive branch.
The CDC first issued a moratorium in September last year after a prior one approved by Congress expired. Agency officials said the policy was needed to combat the spread of Covid-19 and prevent homelessness during the pandemic.
Under political pressure from Mr Biden's fellow Democrats, his administration implemented a somewhat narrower eviction moratorium on August 3, three days after the prior one expired.
Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer said in a dissenting opinion the outcome of the case was not as clear cut as the majority suggested and the court was not justified in ending the moratorium so quickly at a time when Covid-19 cases were surging.
"The public interest strongly favors respecting the CDC’s judgment at this moment, when over 90 per cent of counties are experiencing high transmission rates," Mr Breyer wrote.
Citing the CDC, he said a surge of evictions could lead to more Covid-19 infections.
The latest moratorium covered nearly 92 per cent of US counties – those deemed to have "substantial" and "high" levels of coronavirus transmission.
The policy was challenged in federal court by realtor associations in Alabama and Georgia, as well as landlords in those two states.