Virginia moves to restart eviction protections after federal moratorium lapses

‘It protects the tenants’

By: - August 3, 2021 12:04 am

Deputies from the Henrico County Sheriff’s Department process an eviction on July 12, 2018. The tenants had already departed and the deputies, after checking the unit to make sure it’s empty, watch as the owner changes the unit’s locks.

Virginia Democrats are moving to restart state-level eviction protections one month after allowing them to lapse.

The step comes as a federal eviction moratorium ends and President Joe Biden’s administration chastised states for not implementing their own moratoriums.

“There is no excuse for any state or locality not to promptly deploy the resources that Congress appropriated to meet the critical need of so many Americans,” Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said in a statement, noting that only a third of states had moratoriums in place.

Virginia was one of the first states to stand up a rent relief program, dedicating millions in federal aid to people unable to pay their bills. The program has been cited as a national model, but corresponding eviction protections that required landlords to notify tenants financial help was available and apply on their behalf ended in June, when Gov. Ralph Northam allowed the pandemic state of emergency to expire.

At the time, Northam’s administration stressed that the rent relief program still had millions of dollars available, money they believed landlords would tap into even in the absence of a mandate.

But as they gaveled into a special legislative session Monday, Virginia lawmakers said they believe a mandate is still necessary.

“What I think we are finding is that there are still quite a few landlords and tenants that do not know that the money is available,” said Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News. “So what we’re trying to do is make sure that if it’s mandated as part of the process, they’ll have to find out about it.”

Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, said that in practice, judges in his district have continued to require landlords to apply for rent relief funds before granting evictions. He said the legislation would simply formalize and standardize that approach. “This makes sure that the landlords are paid and it protects the tenants in their situation,” he said.

The new protections, included in a budget proposal put forward by Northam with support from Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, are largely identical to the ones that expired last month. Under the law, an eviction for non-payment of rent could only move forward if a tenant refused to cooperate with the rent-relief application, is denied or if it takes longer than 45 days for the state to process the request.

Tenant advocates praised the step, even as they continue to push for a full moratorium that would extend to evictions for reasons other than the non-payment of rent. “Rent relief is there—we need to ensure it’s being used!” wrote the Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center in a tweet.

Meanwhile, landlord groups called the proposal workable, calling only for changes to make clear evictions can proceed in cases in which tenants ignore requests for information necessary to submit an application for rental assistance.

Patrick McCloud, the director of the Virginia Apartment Management Association, said in some jurisdictions judges have refused to act in such cases. “The question that gets asked is, does a tenant’s failure to respond mean they failed to cooperate?” he said. “I would say yes, but there are judges in Virginia that would tell you no.”

If lawmakers approve the budget proposal hammered out in private by Democrat leaders, the new protections would take effect in the coming weeks with Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature.

That would leave at least a month-and-a-half gap since the expiration of Virginia’s eviction protections and likely at least a two week gap since the expiration of the federal moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control.

It is hardly the first gap in eviction protections for state residents, which have come in starts and stops since the pandemic began.

When the coronavirus pandemic began, struggling renters were protected from eviction by the simple fact that courts were closed. Later, the Supreme Court of Virginia specifically prohibited evictions from proceeding to give the state time to stand up its rent relief program.

Evictions resumed last summer and continued through November, when the federal moratorium and state protections went into effect.

Both were set to expire at the end of June, but Biden’s administration continued the federal moratorium an additional month.

 

The expiration of the CDC moratorium set of a flurry of activity and protest at the federal level.

Biden on Monday called on state and local governments to put their own pause on evictions for at least two months, and urged them to use $46.5 billion provided by the coronavirus relief package for tenants and landlords.

But the White House said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been unable to find the legal authority to reinstate a federal eviction moratorium that expired on Saturday.

The ban was put in place by the CDC to prevent renters losing their homes during the coronavirus pandemic, in which thousands have lost their jobs and millions of people have slipped into poverty. Millions of Americans are at risk of being evicted with the end of the moratorium.

“Given the rising urgency of the spread of the delta variant, the president has asked all of us, including the CDC, to do everything in our power to look for every potential legal authority we can have to prevent evictions,” said Gene Sperling, an adviser who is overseeing the president’s pandemic relief efforts, at an afternoon briefing.

Biden is also directing state and local courts to follow the Justice Department’s advice and “pause eviction proceedings until tenants and landlords can first seek to access Emergency Rental Assistance—making evictions a last, not first—resort.”

According to the Treasury Department, more than $1.5 billion in rental assistance was delivered to eligible households in June.

Biden also directed the Department of Agriculture, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Veterans Affairs and the Federal Housing Finance Agency to extend their foreclosure-related eviction moratoriums until Sept. 30.

Congressional Democrats are pushing the White House to extend the pause on evictions, including top leaders, but the White House has argued its hands are tied, pointing to a Supreme Court decision in June.

A 5-4 ruling found that the CDC could not extend the moratorium past July 31. The Biden administration last week then called for congressional action to extend the ban on evictions.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, (D-Calif.), said in a statement Monday that she agreed with the administration’s steps and that the House would work on extending the moratorium.

“In addition, I am pleased that the President is urging the states and municipalities to distribute the $46.5 billion that Congress allocated in the December Omnibus and American Rescue Plan,” she said in a statement. “House Members are hard at work in their districts to ensure that these funds are immediately disbursed to the landlords and the families to avoid eviction.”

The chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Joyce Beatty, (D-Ohio), urged the Biden administration to extend the CDC’s eviction moratorium to mid-October.

“[T]housands of Black families and children could lose the roof over their heads at a time when the deadly pandemic is surging once again, and their lives are in disorder due to the pandemic,” Beatty said in a statement.

Democrats scrambled last week to get federal legal protections extended until December, but were unsuccessful, and the House now is out for recess until Sept. 20.

Beatty said that the Congressional Black Caucus has lobbied House leadership and the White House to “figure out a way to extend the moratorium on evictions.” She added that Congress provided billions of emergency rental assistance that still has not been distributed to renters and landlords, which “would have given support and reprieve to families struggling to make ends meet and teetering on the brink of homelessness.”

“The CBC believes that ensuring families have the relief they need is a national emergency and moral imperative to prevent people from being put out on the street,” she said.

Beatty added that the caucus was in support of Rep. Cori Bush, (D-Mo.), who has slept outside on the steps of the Capitol since the moratorium expired in protest of Congress not extending protections for vulnerable tenants.

“Since Friday—when some colleagues chose early vacation over voting to prevent evictions—we’ve been at the Capitol,” Bush wrote on Twitter. “It’s an eviction emergency. Our people need an eviction moratorium. Now.”

She penned a letter on Friday, begging Democratic leadership to stay in session and extend the moratorium.

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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. Contact him at [email protected]

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