Virginia residents who fall behind on their rent during the COVID-19 pandemic would get an extra 60 days to catch up under a proposal Gov. Ralph Northam is sending to the General Assembly.
The extensions, which would be available once the court system resumes normal operations, would only apply to people who aren’t already receiving relief through the federal CARES Act.
“This is just to help buy time,” said Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News. She introduced legislation establishing a similar program for furloughed federal employees, which Northam is proposing amending on an emergency basis to apply to people facing hardship under the current pandemic. “We know this is not going to save everyone.”
The Supreme Court of Virginia has suspended most court activities, which has effectively halted evictions until at least June. But advocates worry about a sudden surge of eviction cases once courts reopen.
“If you haven’t paid your rent, you’re going to have to go to court in June,” said Christie Marra, the Virginia Poverty Law Center’s director of housing advocacy. “And without this legislation, the court can just say, ‘Ok, here you go Mr. Landlord,’ and you’re out on the street in 10 days.”
The federal CARES Act includes a stronger moratorium on evictions and bans late fees, but it only applies to an estimated 28 percent of renters who live in properties that participate in federal assistance programs or are financed with federally backed mortgages — a category into which many renters aren’t sure they fall.
Northam’s proposed amendment would also grant property owners who fall behind on their mortgage 30-day stays against foreclosure, though most homeowners, especially those on the lower end of the income scale, likely have mortgages that qualify them for stronger federal protections, said Erik Johnston, director of the Department of Housing and Community Development.
The legislation requires people seeking to take advantage of the stay to show a judge (in the case of renters) or their bank (in the case of homeowners) to demonstrate loss of income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Northam is also asking lawmakers to amend legislation introduced by Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, capping fees for late rent payments at 10 percent. If accepted, his proposal would make the legislation effective immediately rather than on July 1.
Currently there are no limits on late fees and many landlords assess a flat rate of $70 on top of interest regardless of the amount due.
Johnston urged people struggling to make payments to contact their lenders or landlords to try to work out payment arrangements. “The goal is to try to keep Virginians in their homes,” he said, but “it does not eliminate the eventual need for those payments.”
Unemployment has soared both nationally and in Virginia. An apartment industry group reported last week that the number of renters who made on time payments last month declined 13 percent over the prior year.
Similar numbers aren’t available for Virginia, but Patrick McCloud, the director of the Virginia Apartment Management Association, said he’s heard anecdotally from his members that the situation wasn’t quite as bad here. “Most people reported to me that rent payments in April were far better than we expected,” he said.
As for Northam’s proposals, he said they’re in line with practices already widely adopted within the rental industry.
“Simply put, the industry is trying when possible to make payment arrangements with individuals to keep them in their homes,” he said.
The General Assembly will vote on Northam’s amendments when it reconvenes on April 22.