More than 12,000 eviction cases could head to trial as Virginia rushes to provide rent relief

By: - June 25, 2020 5:53 pm

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

Gov. Ralph Northam says a rent and mortgage relief program will be ready to launch Monday, the same day courts around the state can begin hearing a backlog of more than 12,000 eviction cases that were put on hold during the coronavirus pandemic.

Advocates called it an impossibly tight turnaround, urging Northam Thursday to extend a state-wide moratorium on evictions until after the relief program goes live and tenants can begin receiving aid.

“These actions are not enough,” wrote the directors of the Virginia Poverty Law Center, Legal Aid Justice Center and New Virginia Majority in a joint letter to the governor. “To stop mass evictions from happening during the current public health crisis, more must be done, so we are again urging you to issue an executive order prohibiting residential evictions until a fully funded, robust rent relief program has been fully implemented and used to reduce the eviction caseloads in courts across Virginia.”

Northam said that he had not asked the Supreme Court of Virginia to extend the moratorium and that he does not plan to pursue a moratorium using his executive powers, which he said would be difficult.

But he did acknowledge that the state could use more time to get the program up and running, asking judges in courthouses around the state to use their authority to extend the moratorium at the local level. It’s unclear how many will go along with the request.

Evictions had been put on a de-facto hold since mid-March, when the Supreme Court ordered all routine hearings continued under a “judicial emergency” the justices declared in response to the coronavirus pandemic. But that ended on May 18, when the court told local judges they could begin resuming normal operations. At Northam’s request, Chief Justice Don Lemons on June 8 granted a temporary moratorium on eviction cases to give the state time to set up the program.

But Lemons “made very clear that we weren’t going to get another extension,” said Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer.

At Northam’s request, Virginia Supreme Court grants state-wide eviction moratorium

Mercer said judges in just a few large jurisdictions agreeing to delay resuming eviction cases would give the state the cushion it needs to begin smoothly rolling out the program.

Northam said the state is using $50 million in federal CARES Act funding to launch what it’s dubbed the Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program in partnership with local nonprofit programs.

That’s a quarter of the $200 million that the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development had requested to operate the program. Mercer said the state is pursuing more funding but that the initial allocation is sufficient to launch the program.

Information about how to apply, who will be eligible and the amount of aid that will be provided will be announced Monday. Northam said the program would target outreach in minority communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

“The program will help cover rent and mortgage payments on households who are experiencing financial instability due to the pandemic,” he said. “Because we know the pandemic is having a disproportionate health and financial impact on people of color, this program will have an equity lens and target outreach to those communities.”

According to data the Supreme Court of Virginia provided Northam’s administration, there were 12,337 eviction cases pending in district courts around the state as of the beginning of the month.

Richmond, home of some of the highest eviction rates in the country, has by far the most cases pending, with 1,917 cases waiting to be heard. Newport News, with 1,170 cases pending, and Norfolk, with 1,010, came in second and third.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.