Political fight over redistricting delays eviction, utility cutoff protections in budget

By: and - October 16, 2020 12:05 am

A sheriff’s deputy in Newport News hands eviction paperwork last year to Cecelia Woodard, who said she was unable to find work during the pandemic and was five months behind on her rent. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

NEWPORT NEWS — Cecelia Woodard gave a nervous glance down the road every time she heard a car approach.

It was Tuesday morning and the sheriff was scheduled to arrive to evict her from the apartment she shares with her 64-year-old mother, who had left a few minutes earlier with a plan to donate plasma in hopes of scraping together money for a hotel room.

Woodard had only learned about the national eviction moratorium imposed by the Centers for Disease Control a few days earlier from Delaware’s unemployment office, which she had called in a desperate attempt to get information about the status of her unemployment claim after being unable to get through to anyone in Virginia. It didn’t help, she said: Her landlord ignored the declaration she sent that was supposed to keep her in her home.

And she had never heard that the state launched a rent relief program designed to help people just like her avoid homelessness by covering back rent accrued during the coronavirus pandemic.

All she knew was that she couldn’t find a job, couldn’t pay rent and was about to move into a Nissan sedan with her mom and as many of their possessions as they could fit.

“When they come to lock the doors, I still don’t have any way to pay,” she said, her voice softening. “So I guess we’ll be living outside.”

Virginia lawmakers convened a special legislative session this summer with plans to address the economic fall-out from COVID-19. And they’ve now agreed on policies that would help people exactly like Woodard, including unambiguous eviction protections that would have prevented her case from ever being heard in court, alerted her to the rent relief available and even required her landlord to help her apply.

The only problem: They haven’t gone into effect yet.

What began with promises of quick action to address urgent problems has devolved into a sprawling, eight-week exercise marked by Democratic infighting, long-winded debates, choppy transitions to new workspaces and part-time lawmakers balancing their legislative duties with day jobs and pandemic-era parenting duties.

The latest delay arose from an internal Democratic feud over the upcoming ballot referendum proposing a bipartisan redistricting commission, which most Senate Democrats support and most House Democrats oppose. Unable to agree on whether language dealing with that commission’s setup should or shouldn’t be in the budget, negotiators chose to keep the budget process open until after the Nov. 3 redistricting referendum is over. That will allow Gov. Ralph Northam to amend the budget later with whatever redistricting language the House and Senate can agree to. 

That also means it will take longer for everything else in the budget, including the COVID-19 relief, to become law.

Gov. Ralph Northam at a press conference in October. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

With the session dragging into fall, Northam has had to ask state regulators multiple times to extend the moratorium on utility shutoffs, saying he hoped the General Assembly would finish soon. The State Corporation Commission granted one of those requests on Sept. 15. But the commission later announced there would be no more extensions, after saying repeatedly it is the General Assembly’s job to pass a long-term solution to the crisis. Some municipal utilities, which were never subjected to the original ban, have already said they are resuming shutoffs for delinquent accounts. Once enacted, the new budget would stop them.

The Supreme Court of Virginia also refused to extend a court-ordered eviction moratorium that it had granted to give lawmakers time to pass legislation addressing the issue. As the Sept. 7 expiration date approached, Northam wrote that it had become clear that lawmakers would not finish their work before it lapsed. Had the court agreed to his request to continue the moratorium to Oct. 1, the General Assembly would now have also missed that deadline, too. 

The legislative discord began almost as soon as lawmakers arrived in Richmond.

The session began on Aug. 18 with the House and Senate unable to agree on basic rules for how the proceedings would go and what topics would be addressed. For social distancing purposes, the Senate moved from the Capitol to the Science Museum of Virginia, a space it would occasionally have to vacate for weddings and other booked events. Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, insisted on the House working remotely as a safety precaution, prompting howls from Republicans who insisted on a five-day delay before the change could be implemented and later complained they had poor Internet connections and couldn’t get into virtual meetings.

At the Capitol, the House and Senate can communicate with each other via short walks across the hall. Meeting in different locations via different methods, combined with generally frosty relations between Democratic leaders, also seems to have complicated the flow of business, especially a weighty package of criminal justice reform legislation.

House and Senate Democrats agreed broadly before the session began to take on the issues amid widespread protests that followed the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. But the two chambers often found themselves at odds over the details and scope of the bills they were considering, leading to bitter debates between lawmakers in the two chambers on issues like qualified immunity and mandatory felony penalties that lasted weeks.

They finally resolved their differences this week, finalizing most of their bills. But as that work concluded, a new impasse emerged.

The last-minute budget wrinkle centers around language inserted by the Senate that isn’t critical to the constitutional amendment on the ballot. It mostly puts pieces in place to begin the redistricting commission’s creation if voters decide they want it, specifying that the political leaders and retired judges setting up the commission would have to take racial, geographic and gender diversity into account and could not fill the seats with political aides, family members or lobbyists. 

But as many House Democrats work to convince Democratic voters to reject the commission idea, which would leave map-drawing power with the General Assembly, they didn’t want to agree to anything that might signal their approval. The language also cuts against their arguments that the commission could lack diversity and be dominated by political insiders.

Most of our caucus, including me, are strongly against anything that would be perceived as improving it,” Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, left, chairman of the House Appropriations committee, confers with Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, right, as the Virginia House of Delegates begins their special session inside the Siegel Center in Richmond, VA Tuesday, August 18, 2020. (Pool photo by Bob Brown/ Richmond Times-Dispatch)

A standalone bill similar to the redistricting language at issue in the budget easily passed both chambers during the regular legislative session, but House Democrats blocked its final passage. In an interview last week, Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, said she felt it was unnecessary to revive a highly contentious issue in a budget lawmakers were trying to pass quickly.

“I’m fully willing to vote on a budget without it so that we can keep the conversation separate,” Price said. “So that we can focus on the emergency that is in front of us.”

Lawmakers in both chambers pushed back against the idea that the redistricting debate will significantly delay eviction and utility cutoff protections — the two primary emergency programs that are included in the budget and will take effect as soon as the document is signed by Northam.

Absent the dispute, the budget would begin its journey to the governor’s desk on Friday or Saturday when the House and the Senate plan to vote on the document. But Democrats say what now looks like a three-week delay before it will be sent to Northam is really only going to set them back about 10 days. They say that’s because the technical process of enrolling the massive legal document after lawmakers vote but before it is signed by legislative leaders and sent to the governor always takes about two weeks and will continue as scheduled.

“Within a week of the election, it could still go into effect,” said Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, who was one of the lawmakers who negotiated the eviction protection language.

Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, sits in his “plastic box” during the Senate floor session in the temporary Virginia Senate chamber inside the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, VA Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. He has been recovering from health issues and was given an extra layer of safety by the Senate Clerk for the special session. (AP Pool Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, Bob Brown).

Yet advocacy groups that pushed for the language said any delay at this stage in the session would be disappointing given how long it’s taken lawmakers to finish their work. They said that while they had hoped for stronger protections, the program outlined in the budget represents an immediate improvement over current eviction rules that don’t require landlords to notify tenants of their rights or participate in the state’s rent relief program.

“We estimate about 50 percent of the people who get a notice from their landlord leave before the landlord ever gets a judgement,” said Christie Marra, a housing advocate at the Virginia Poverty Law Center. “That’s a huge problem since we know that tenants by and large don’t know about the programs available.”

VOICE, a multi-faith religious group that has been advocating on the issue, said when the new rules go into effect Virginia will be one of just a handful of states with a moratorium that is stronger than the one implemented by the CDC.

Meanwhile, landlord groups that have lobbied heavily on the issue suggested they don’t consider the debate resolved. “With everything being in a state of flux and the governor still having a chance to amend we just don’t believe it’s appropriate to offer an opinion on the budget at this time,” said Patrick McCloud, the chief executive of the Virginia Apartment Management Association.

Tenants remain in a state of flux, too.

Cecelia Woodard sits outside her apartment in Newport News on Tuesday while waiting for the sheriff’s office to arrive to evict her and her mother. Woodard says she’s been unable to find work during the pandemic. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Woodard, who faced eviction this week in Newport News, narrowly avoided being locked out of her apartment on Tuesday — an outcome she attributed to a last minute call to the sheriff’s office to warn them that her landlord was pursuing the case in violation of the CDC’s moratorium. 

But the stay is only temporary.

When the deputy finally arrived, he informed her that the eviction had been pushed back one week and then walked away without offering any additional information about why or how she might proceed, leaving her relieved but also uncertain about what comes next.

“I’m grateful,” she said. “But I don’t know why they delayed it and I’m still not sure what I’m going to do. I’m literally — I don’t know. I don’t even know.”

Mercury reporter Sarah Vogelsong contributed to this story.

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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.

Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.