Courts around Virginia began working their way through a backlog of more than 12,000 eviction cases last week as a statewide moratorium expired, with many judges apparently declining a last-minute request from Gov. Ralph Northam to continue the stay at the local level.
“It’s a total patchwork,” said Christie Marra, the director of housing advocacy at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, which has asked Northam to use his executive authority to intervene more decisively. She said the current approach of leaving the decision to local courts is “absolutely not working.”
Meanwhile landlord groups said they were pleased that judges had resumed hearing the cases. “I think the worry with any moratorium is you start to cross a point where a moratorium starts to become an unconstitutional taking,” said Patrick McCloud, executive director of the Virginia Apartment Management Association. He said most tenants are continuing to pay rent, which he credited to federal unemployment and stimulus programs. “Rent collections are not terribly far off from where they would be absent a pandemic.”
District courts docketed more than 1,600 eviction lawsuits last week, with judges awarding $1.4 million in cash judgments to landlords, according to online docket information compiled by open government group virginiacourtdata.org.
That’s 600 more cases than courts heard the same week last year, according to the data. But the numbers also show a slight shift in the outcome of the cases in favor of tenants, with landlords winning judgments in 23 percent of cases, down from 41 percent at the same time last year.
It’s unclear precisely how many of the 129 district courts in the state agreed to Northam’s request that they continue to delay the cases, but the count appears to be low. The Supreme Court of Virginia’s administrative office said it didn’t track that information. Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said the administration didn’t have a full list but is aware of only two: Arlington General District Court and Fairfax General District Court.
“Gov. Northam is grateful that these courts have complied with his request, and he continues to strongly urge all General District Courts to follow suit,” she said in an email, noting Northam is seeking millions in additional federal funding to shore up a rent and mortgage relief program launched by his administration.
Of the cases that were heard last week, the outcomes varied dramatically by jurisdiction. Virginia Beach, Hampton and Portsmouth recorded the largest share of judgments in favor of landlords, according to court records analyzed by virginiacourtdata.org. In other cities and counties, including Richmond, Albemarle and Henrico, the numbers favored tenants, with more cases continued or dismissed.
In Richmond, the decision to resume hearing cases prompted several hundred people to protest Wednesday outside the courthouse. The rally ended in a clash with sheriff’s deputies that saw three people detained and a courthouse window smashed, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
During the afternoon eviction docket the next day, Judge Claire Cardwell granted continuances to all the tenants who appeared in court under a new state law that guarantees people facing financial hardship related to the pandemic at least two extra months to pay rent.
Among them was Barbara Zahniser, one of the 22 residents called to court that afternoon by St. John’s Wood Apartments in South Richmond. She explained to the judge that she had lost her job after a car crash and her unemployment insurance had run out in March as the pandemic began. She is eligible for extended benefits because of the pandemic, she testified, but Virginia has been slow to set up the program. Meantime, she said she wasn’t able to find work.
“I’m in home health care,” she said. “The elderly, they’re afraid to let people into their homes.”
Many tenants who didn’t appear in court benefited in absentia from eviction protections written into the federal CARES Act, which bars landlords with federally backed mortgages or who participate in certain government programs from initiating evictions until the end of July.
“There have been some default judgments when people did not show up and it was determined that their property didn’t fall under the CARES Act,” said Janae Craddock, a housing attorney with the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society who works out of an office in the courthouse and has been monitoring dockets to ensure property owners covered by the CARES Act didn’t seek eviction judgments. “For the most part though, there have been a lot of continuances.”
But advocates worried that CARES Act protections are set to expire soon and that not all courts are requiring landlords to proactively testify that they are not prohibited from pursuing evictions under the law, meaning tenants might only benefit from the protection if they both appear in court and know about the new law. And they argue tenants shouldn’t have to come to court amid a pandemic to exercise their right to a two-month continuance under state code.
“It’s encouraging that judges are granting continuances liberally in individual cases,” said Marra at the Virginia Poverty Law Center. “But that doesn’t help people who can’t show up for whatever reason or were turned away at the courthouse because they had a fever.”
But Richard Knapp, a longtime housing lawyer who was representing St. John’s Wood in court that day, noted landlords have their own bills to pay. “My concern is some of the smaller landlords are going to have to go bankrupt because they’re not getting rent,” he said.
That’s presumably where Northam’s rent and mortgage relief program comes in. It launched last week and aims to address the financial needs of both tenants and landlords by covering unpaid back rent.
But it remains to be seen how many tenants will seek aid and how many landlords will agree to the attached terms, which require a commitment to either waive some unpaid rent or wait at least six months before pursing an eviction again.
The state Department of Housing and Community Development says it’s seen high interest, but won’t have firm numbers until next week.