At Northam’s request, Virginia Supreme Court grants state-wide eviction moratorium

(Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

The Supreme Court of Virginia ordered local courts Monday to stop hearing eviction cases through at least the end of the month.

Chief Justice Don Lemons wrote that the action came at the request of Gov. Ralph Northam “to allow the Commonwealth time to implement its comprehensive rent relief program and to help relieve the public health risk associated with evicting Virginians from their places of residence.”

Evictions had been put on a de-facto hold since mid-March, when the Supreme Court ordered all routine hearings continued under a “judicial emergency” the justices declared in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

But that ended on May 18, when the court told local judges they could begin resuming normal operations. Many courts did. In Lynchburg, for instance, The News & Advance reported that dozens of families were ordered from their homes the first day the hearings were allowed.

The Virginia Poverty Law Center and other advocates urged Northam to intervene, requesting in a letter signed by about a dozen lawmakers that he order a state-wide moratorium on evictions.

Northam initially responded by saying he had no plans to do so. But in a statement Monday announcing the Supreme Court’s order, said he had asked the court to address the issue over the weekend. His administration said he was responding to an increase in cases scheduled for this week.

“While some courts across the commonwealth began reopening earlier this is the first week we’ve seen thousands of eviction proceedings docketed to be heard,” spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said.

Northam said he would announce plans for a rent relief initiative using federal CARES Act funding “in the coming weeks.”

“I am grateful to the chief justice for granting this order, and for the activists who have been working tirelessly on this important issue,” Northam said in the statement. “Access to safe and stable housing is critically important, and this action will keep thousands of families in their homes as we work to get them the support they need.”

Advocates called the decision “huge for tenants all across Virginia.”

“I think it’s really critical that this order recognized that evictions are different from other cases, especially in the middle of the pandemic,” said Christie Marra, the Virginia Poverty Law Center’s director of housing advocacy.