Few if any local court districts took up governor’s offer to continue rent moratoriums.
Despite calls from Gov. Ralph Northam for localities to implement their own eviction moratoriums, data shows thousands of eviction cases moving through Virginia courts.
Evictions in the state had been banned for months under a statewide moratorium, as businesses closed and renters suddenly lost their income because of the coronavirus pandemic. An eviction moratorium provides a temporary ban on removing renters from their homes after a period of time when an occupant has not paid their rent. For months, the only protection many renters had against homelessness was this statewide moratorium.
But in late June the protection expired, and Northam called on local jurisdictions to implement their own moratoriums as they saw fit to protect their renters.
Current data from the Legal Aid and Justice Center in Charlottesville shows that every district court in the commonwealth is currently hearing eviction cases. In fact, it may be that only one or two districts actually extended a local moratorium on evictions. It’s unclear which district courts extended their own moratoriums, as multiple courts never responded or claimed they were unable to comment on pending cases. Repeated calls and emails to the Governor’s office and his spokesperson also yielded no information.
In at least one instance, in Fairfax County, local government officials called on their district courts to create a moratorium on evictions, but the court declined. Dogwood obtained letters between the two government entities.
“[Delaying hearing eviction cases] will allow those needing rental assistance to have sufficient time to request aid through the Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program or request aid through Fairfax County’s Community Services Planning,” wrote Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay to the Fairfax District Court.
McKay also noted that the county is already dealing with a large number of COVID-19 cases.
“Unsheltered people are at a greater risk of contracting the coronavirus and without this delay Fairfax County risks many left without shelter,” he said. “An increase in our unsheltered population could lead to a surge in the rate of infections for those unsheltered and for everyone with whom they come into contact.”
In response, the Fairfax General District Court said they “empathize” with people who appear before the court and “understand the impact of COVID-19 on both tenants and landlords.” However, they declined the request and note that the court will begin hearing eviction cases the following week.
When the original statewide moratorium expired in June, Northam introduced a rent relief program. The $50 million fund, called the Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program, provides money for rent and mortgage assistance. The program allocates a one-time payment with an opportunity to renew if there is funding available and based on a household’s eligibility.
But like many programs implemented in the middle of this pandemic, the rent relief program has been bogged down by problems, according to Christie Marra who serves as Director of Housing Advocacy with the Virginia Poverty Law Center.
“From what I’m hearing, giving out the money is really slow going, they don’t have enough staff to do this efficiently and they’re having trouble with landlords not wanting to participate in the program,” she said in an interview with Dogwood.
Marra also noted that from the start the program was not allocated enough funding for renters.
“Another problem is that $50 million is nowhere near enough, it needs to be about 20 times that much to really get us through this crisis without mass evictions,” she said.
Virginia had an affordable housing crisis even before the pandemic. According to a 2016 report from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, five Virginia municipalities were on Top Evicting Large Cities in the United States, and all were in the top ten of the list.
Virginia’s housing crisis is also more likely to have an impact on minority populations.
“Due to intentionally racist policies that cause wealth disparities along racial lines to this day, Black and Brown Virginians already bear the brunt of gentrification, housing instability and employment discrimination,” Legal Aid Justice Center said in a new report. They also note that people living at a lower income threshold are less likely to have savings to fall back on if job losses increase.
As housing advocates increasingly warn of an impending homelessness crisis in the commonwealth, Northam wrote a letter on July 24 to the Virginia Supreme Court asking to suspend proceedings for evictions until September 7.
“There remains the distinct threat that the most vulnerable Virginians will be evicted from their homes at a time when our public health crisis is expanding rather than contracting,” he wrote. “The need for Virginians to maintain safe, stable housing is vitally important if we are to fight successfully this virus.”
He explained that extending a moratorium would allow state lawmakers to create legislation that would provide relief to more residents facing evictions.
“We are facing an unprecedented public health and economic crisis that will be made immeasurably worse if the rate of evictions increases at the level we expect,” he wrote.