A police officer walks into the John Marshall Courthouse in downtown Richmond. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

As COVID-19 began to spread in Virginia, Linda Wilkinson’s work as a house cleaner dried up almost instantly.

“Everyone that I worked for is elderly,” the 61-year-old Henrico County resident said. “They are all locked down in their houses and I understood that.”

What she says she didn’t understand was her landlord’s unwillingness to work with her on rent after seven years of on-time payments. She says after she refused to sign a payment plan she wasn’t confident she could meet, her property manager attached a notice to her door accusing her of abandoning her unit and warning her lease could be terminated in seven days.

Evictions are currently frozen in Virginia as a result of a state-wide order limiting court hearings to emergency matters, but lawyers who represent low-income tenants worry some landlords are still trying to oust renters during the pandemic.

Wilkinson is one of three clients who reported receiving an abandonment notice last week after being unable to pay rent on time, according to the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society.

The notes, written in threatening legalese, instruct the tenants that the failure to pay rent is being interpreted as an indication they have abandoned the property and their lease will be terminated in a week unless they receive a written response.

Palmer Heenan, a staff attorney at the legal aid society who is representing Wilkinson, called it a troubling misuse of a statute intended to give a property owner recourse if their tenant disappears and is unreachable. In this case, the tenants had not only not abandoned their apartments, he said, but they were spending nearly all of their time in them in response to Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order.

“It’s not the way the way the abandonment statute is meant to be used,” he said. “It’s really a way of seemingly getting around the fact that courts are closed right now. … If landlords could really do this, there’d be no need for evictions.”

Heenan worried some people who received the notice wouldn’t be sophisticated enough to respond, prove they responded, or worse, might just feel like they have no option but to leave.

Some landlords have been more direct in their efforts to remove tenants before the courts reopen. In Petersburg, Timothy Eldridge shared a copy of a letter his landlord delivered last week labeled “eviction notice.” It ordered him to leave by May 5.

Eldridge, who has asthma and relies on nebulizer to treat it three times a day, said he had to leave his job at a Food Lion warehouse when COVID-19 began to spread because he considered it too risky to continue working in close quarters with others at the busy center.

He said he told his landlord that he would pay the $700 in back-rent he owes with the federal stimulus check he is expecting. But when it didn’t arrive as expected last week, he said his landlord had the power cut off. He said hundreds of dollars of food went bad in his refrigerator and he was no longer able to take his medication because the nebulizer requires electricity to operate.

“I’m in the house with no lights on right now,” he said. “I honestly don’t know what to do.”

Reached by phone, the property owners he rents from, Walter and Carolyn Roach, refused to answer directly when asked if they had the power cut off. “He doesn’t have no evidence that we cut the power off,” Carolyn Roach said. “Maybe it was because he didn’t pay the bills.”

But state regulators have halted utility cut-offs for nonpayment and Eldridge said the power account was in the landlord’s name.

Asked if she was aware that evictions had been halted during the pandemic, Carolyn Roach responded: “Are you aware a lot of people are trying to use this as an excuse to not pay their rent?” Then she hung up the phone.

As of Monday, Eldridge was still trying to resolve the dispute with his landlord. Daryl Hayott, an attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center, described walking him through legal options when he called the nonprofit’s eviction helpline. “It’s important that private landlords understand that legal aid is still here and we’re still going to lean on you to make sure you respect the laws of the commonwealth,” Hayott said.

In Henrico, Wilkinson’s landlord, Acclaim at Carriage Hill in Henrico County, said in a statement that they did post an abandonment notice, but that “it was not posted to coerce payment or to address the nonpayment of rent. For privacy reasons, we will not comment further.” They said they have suspended all eviction filings for non-payment of rent because “we do not want our residents concerned that they will be without a home during this pandemic.”

For now, Heenan said they’ve worked things out and Wilkinson is expecting aid from Henrico County that will help her catch up on rent.

In a phone interview, Wilkinson expressed relief, but also concern that other tenants might go through a similar ordeal.

“I’m not the type of person to ask for help,” she said. “I live within my means. But I would be living in my car as of Monday, I would not have been able to rent another place to live. And that disturbs me that that could happen to someone else and they would not know what to do.”