Virginia lawmakers pursue compromise on eviction moratorium

By: - August 31, 2020 12:01 am

In early July, Virginia courts had a backlog of more than 12,000 eviction cases 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. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Lawmakers in the Virginia Senate appear to be nearing a compromise on a proposed eviction moratorium that advocates hope will head off a wave of homelessness amid widespread job losses and expiring unemployment benefits.

Initial proposals would have barred nearly all evictions through April 30, 2021, and mandated landlords participate in a state rent-relief program that in some cases required them to forgive half the rent they were owed. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle called the approach unworkable as outlined in budget language introduced by Gov. Ralph Northam and legislation proposed by Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield.

“To say that there’s no evictions through April — we have to change that dramatically,” said Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, when Northam’s budget language went before lawmakers.

But a revised version of Hashmi’s bill paired with changes to the state’s rent-relief program have assuaged some of those initial concerns by tying the moratorium to the end of the state of emergency and promising landlords full reimbursement for unpaid rent.

“So I’m not going to say we’re totally thrilled, but it’s getting close to a compromise that is at least livable,” said Patrick McCloud, the president of the Virginia Apartment Management Association, which represents landlords and had vigorously opposed earlier iterations of the program as “an unconstitutional taking.”

Virginia State Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, left, talks with Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City County, during the Virginia Senate Special Session in the temporary Senate chambers at the Science Museum of Virginia Tuesday Aug. 18, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber/Pool)

Senate lawmakers advanced Hashmi’s bill last week with amendments that allow evictions to proceed against tenants who refuse rental assistance through state or local programs or don’t qualify because they can afford to pay rent without help. It also allows evictions in response to “a criminal or willful act that is not remediable and that poses a threat to health or safety” and requires landlords to inform tenants in writing about the program and how to seek help.

“It is an attempt to provide a moratorium for individuals who are in crisis, especially those who are in crisis as a result of the pandemic,” Hashmi said, noting that researchers at VCU estimate that more than 260,000 households in Virginia are at risk of eviction.

She also outlined changes to the rent relief program, which Northam’s administration is funding with $50 million in CARES Act funding. In addition to providing full reimbursement directly to landlords for all unpaid rent, the revised rules allow landlords to directly apply for the aid on behalf of tenants and open the aid to anyone making less than 80 percent of the area median income, which hovers around $80,000 a year for a family of four in larger cities and $60,000 or even less in rural localities.

As launched earlier this year, the program prioritized people making significantly less money and required landlords to either forgive one month rent for every month covered by the state or commit not to evict a tenant for at least six months regardless of whether they continued paying rent — rules landlords said made participation unappealing in many cases.

Hashmi’s legislation still has to go before the Senate’s Finance Committee, but members of the General Laws Committee who gave it their initial OK on Thursday said the changes had addressed many of their initial concerns.

“It’s really about ensuring that we connect those in need with the resources available,” said Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William.

Virginia State Senator Ghazala Hashmi joins the protest rally at the Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond, Va., June 2, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Tenant advocates said they also support the amended bill. “The important thing about Sen. Hashmi’s bill is it protects all tenants with the exception of those who pose a real threat to the life and safety of others or who absolutely refuse to seek rental assistance or help the landlord seek rental assistance,” said Christie Marra, the Virginia Poverty Law Center’s director of housing advocacy. “It isn’t a full moratorium, but it’s reflective of a compromise.”

Some lawmakers and landlords say there are still changes they’d like to see in the final legislation. Among them, greater clarity on how and whether tenants could be evicted if they violate the terms of their lease in ways other than not paying rent. Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamburg, wondered specifically what rights a landlord would have if a tenant violated a lease by letting more people move into their home than allowed.

Marra said she would oppose any changes that allow evictions to proceed under such circumstances, as well as changes that might exempt small landlords. “It isn’t good policy and it isn’t realistic to put people out because they’re allowing friends and family to stay with them in the middle of this crisis,” she said.

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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.