Pandemic eviction protections could expire this summer

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)

Measures aimed at limiting evictions amid the pandemic will come to an end this summer unless renewed by state and federal leaders.

At the federal level, a Centers for Disease Control moratorium was struck down by a judge in the District of Columbia, who ruled the agency overstepped its authority. The Department of Justice is appealing, but even if they prevail, the order is scheduled to expire on June 30.

Renters in Virginia enjoy additional protections enacted by the General Assembly and Gov. Ralph Northam, which require a landlord to apply for rental assistance from the state and bar eviction unless the tenant is denied or refuses to cooperate with the application.

But those requirements would also end on June 30 unless Northam extends his pandemic emergency declaration — a step he said Thursday he’s not yet sure he will take.

“I hope to have COVID-19 in the rear-view mirror,” he said at a news conference Thursday, in which he announced plans to end all pandemic restrictions except for the mask mandate.

Northam said Thursday that if the CDC is still recommending people wear masks when the order is set to expire, he would likely extend the state of emergency because it is otherwise illegal to wear a mask in public under state law.

He said Thursday he would also weigh the impact on the state’s eviction protections.

“Without getting into a lot of the details, we certainly don’t want our state of emergency to go any longer than it needs to be,” Northam said. “We want to put COVID-19 behind us, but there are some details we need to work through, one being eviction.”

Representatives of landlords praised the state’s Rent and Mortgage Relief Program, which has paid more than $150 million in back rent since the program was established and helped about 30,000 households, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

But landlords say it’s time for the mandate that landlords participate in the program and apply on behalf of tenants to expire.

“At some point we have to move back to the way things work and we need to get back to where contracts that were legally entered into are upheld by the courts without intrusion from government,” said Patrick McCloud, the director of the Virginia Apartment Management Association, who argued that landlords are already incentivized to participate in the program because evictions are costly.

“Policymakers seem to continually think landlords want to evict people,” he said. “Landlords don’t want to evict people; landlords want to get paid for the services they provide.”

Tenant advocates counter that the mandates remain important. Christie Marra, director of housing advocacy at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, worried that if landlords are no longer required to notify tenants about the aid available and help them apply, renters will “self evict” upon being notified they’re behind on their rent.

She said an additional six months would give tenants time get back on solid financial footing.

“The governor has the power under his emergency authority to open all businesses back up to 100 percent and get the economy moving again but to delay ending the state of emergency to allow people to start making the money they need to pay their rent so that they will stay safely housed,” she said.