Evictions are not a game: The governor must act

July 28, 2020 12:15 am

Gov. Ralph Northam answered questions from reporters about how the state will and won’t enforce a requirement that people wear masks indoors. (May 28, 2020 — Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By Tram Nguyen and Elaine Poon

By midnight on the 25th, the federal eviction moratorium imposed by the CARES Act expired.  Days after that, the additional unemployment benefits will as well.  An eviction crisis is upon us, but two branches of Virginia’s government are pointing fingers and playing a dangerous game with Virginians’ lives as a result.

When asked what can be done to stem a potential tide of homelessness during a public health crisis, Attorney General Mark Herring recently opined that each branch of government holds the power to save homes and lives. While we wait for the legislature to go into a special session on Aug. 18, hundreds if not thousands of Virginians could have already lost their homes. Meanwhile, two branches of Virginia’s government — the judiciary and the executive branches— can act immediately to prevent this crisis, but they are both abdicating responsibility by waiting for the other to act.

Start with the courts. The Supreme Court of Virginia has the power to declare judicial emergencies and, as part of that, to suspend eviction hearings. Indeed, SCV did this multiple times in the initial weeks of the pandemic. Yet, on May 18, SCV let this provision lapse along with other emergency protections, and eviction proceedings resumed across Virginia. Chaos ensued almost immediately. Litigants were not told what safety protocols were required of them until they risked their lives just to schedule a trial. Several local courts either ignored or refused to follow federal tenant protections, resulting in a serious risk of mass violations of federal law. Huge eviction dockets amassed large crowds of tenants fearfully waiting adjudication inside and outside courtrooms, violating the governor’s emergency order prohibiting gatherings of over 10 people.

In response to the outcry at these harrowing scenes, SCV issued a court order that effectively provided relief from evictions for tenants across the entire Commonwealth. That order expired on June 28. Courts resumed eviction cases on June 29 and, less than four weeks later, 1,796 tenants have lost their cases. 9,627 hearings are scheduled in the next eight weeks.

Without a statewide moratorium, it’s on local courts to step in. Under Virginia law, general district courts have broad discretion to control their own dockets. Further, the Supreme Court’s emergency orders provide general district judges with authority to set priorities for their dockets. However, many courts are proceeding with business as usual and none have suspended eviction hearings altogether. Under this set up, whether one can stay in their home or not depends on their ZIP code.

In order to have uniformity across the Commonwealth, Governor Northam is the only person in state government who has the power to act quickly, comprehensively and meaningfully to stop evictions. Failure to act will exacerbate the public health crisis caused by the pandemic. What happens to the families who find themselves without a home while COVID-19 is still tearing through communities? How will they protect themselves from a deadly virus? When “safer at home” is the current mantra, how is putting people out on the streets mitigating a public health crisis that affects all of us? And with many school systems planning to start the academic year with remote learning, how will these children have the resources and environment needed to keep up with their schoolwork?

Inaction will deepen an already wide chasm of income, wealth and opportunity between communities in Virginians.  Pre-pandemic, Virginia was already infamous as a national hotspot for evictions and racial inequality. Of the 25 largest cities in the country with the highest eviction rates, six are located in Virginia.  More than 386,000 people in Virginia are currently unemployed, and the state reported more than 800,000 unemployment claims between March and mid-June. Since the pandemic hit, the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey consistently reports significantly higher housing instability among Black and Latinx households compared to the state average in Virginia.

When we know so much about eviction’s disastrous impacts and the scale of the crisis in Virginia, why has the state’s response been so inadequate? To be fair, the governor did announce a COVID-19 rent relief program, funded by the CARES Act, to assist both renters and mortgage holders. However, $50 million is only one quarter of what the Department of Housing and Community Development requested to administer the program; the National Low Income Housing Coalition further predicts that Virginia will need at least $2.3 billion to fund emergency rental relief for 2020.  As expected with only days’ notice, implementation on the ground has been stilted and cumbersome. Several localities only started processing applications late last week.  Some are showing large percentages of landlords refusing to participate. Many are overburdened without enough trained staff to manage the deluge of requests.

The longer Governor Northam waits to take decisive action, the more Virginians lose their homes; the more people’s lives are thrown into disarray; the higher the risk of COVID-19 community spread. If the Governor has the will to stop a worsening wave of homelessness in the midst of an unemployment crisis and public health disaster, he needs to issue an eviction moratorium by executive order now.

Tram Nguyen is co-executive director of New Virginia Majority and Elaine Poon is managing attorney for the Legal Aid Justice Center.

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