Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a news conference in August. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By the Rev. Dr. Keith Savage, the Rev. Clyde W. Ellis, Jr. and the Rev. James V. Jordan

As pastors of African-American congregations, we are gripped with uneasiness and frustration about the potential of hundreds of thousands of people in our congregations and around Virginia potentially losing their homes because the pandemic ravaged the economy and robbed them of jobs, income, health and housing stability.

We can no longer stand by while Gov. Ralph Northam dithers about taking action to temporarily ban evictions while rent assistance measures are allowed to take effect.

For months, the governor and his administration have told us and our VOICE colleagues that others need to act: the Virginia Supreme Court or the general district courts. An Aug. 5 Virginia Mercury article makes clear, the governor understands the stakes for Virginia’s families — and that he understood even before his latest request of the Supreme Court that a reprieve from the court was unlikely.

Almost two weeks after the governor’s letter to the Supreme Court, no one has taken action. People are suffering, with at least 3,030 having lost their homes due to eviction, according to the Legal Aid Justice Center Virginia Eviction Tracker. And we know from national experience that almost 60 percent of renters move out to avoid court, meaning many more are affected.

The governor’s strategy hasn’t worked. The Supreme Court remains mum, and almost none of the general district courts heeded the governor’s late June request to temporarily halt eviction proceedings. Today, it appears every general district court is allowing eviction proceedings to go forward, with 8,587 cases on the docket between now and Sept. 21, according to the Eviction Tracker.

Meanwhile, federal and state eviction moratoriums have expired along with expanded unemployment benefits. The crisis will get worse.

The governor now is looking to the General Assembly to act when it meets later this month, but hasn’t specified what that relief is. Even if the General Assembly approved a bill calling for a moratorium, it wouldn’t go into effect right away under state law.

There’s no ducking responsibility now: The Attorney General has said the governor has the executive and statutory power to act. 

Gov. Northam has used his emergency powers to act in other arenas during this crisis and been willing to go to court to defend restrictions on health clubs, a wedding venue, and worship services. Why is he unwilling to act to protect vulnerable Virginians at risk of eviction in the middle of a pandemic?

We can only conclude – reluctantly, because we have worked well with the governor in the past – that it is because a disproportionate share of the renters who are being affected are Black and Brown people who lack a seat at the table. Because moneyed real estate interests who fear “a transfer of wealth from property owners to tenants,” as the Mercury article reported, are getting the ear of the governor. There is no other justifiable conclusion at this point. 

We invite Gov. Northam to prove us wrong.

The governor has announced a rent assistance program that can and will help along with a significant additional commitment of funds, but it is just a little over a month old.  Implementation has been complicated by a lack of public awareness and a lack of staff at local partners, among other issues. A temporary evictions ban of four to six weeks will give the program time to work out the problems and, as VOICE has argued, enable landlords to get rent money they otherwise might not while at the same time keeping renters in their homes during an unprecedented health crisis.

This week, a full month after court eviction proceedings restarted, landlords will begin sending August “pay or quit” notices to renters in arrears, the first step in the eviction process. Children are getting ready to go back to school virtually, underscoring the need for housing security and the ability to connect to the Internet. As many as 329,000 children in Virginia have parents who have reported not knowing whether they could make the rent payment in August.

The late civil rights icon, John Lewis, told us all in his last words that “each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something.” The Governor can still do right. It is time for him to stand up, speak up, and act.

Rev. Dr. Keith Savage is pastor of First Baptist Church of Manassas. Rev. Clyde W. Ellis Jr. is pastor of Mount Olive Baptist Church, Woodbridge. Rev. James V. Jordan is pastor of Third Baptist Church, Alexandria. They are members of Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement’s  Stop Evictions Campaigns.