Supreme Court of Virginia is silent on Northam’s request to renew eviction moratorium

Protesters at the John Marshall Courthouse in Richmond in July opposed the end of a statewide eviction moratorium. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Ralph Northam wrote to Supreme Court of Virginia Chief Justice Don Lemons at the end of last month asking that he renew a moratorium on evictions that expired at the end of June.

A little over a week later, Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, says the governor hasn’t received a response.

The silence is not entirely unexpected. Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, said back in June that Northam hadn’t bothered to request an extension of the initial two-week moratorium Lemons granted when courts reopened because Lemons “made very clear that we weren’t going to get another extension.”

Northam had instead opted to write to the chief judges of individual courthouse around the state asking to extend the moratorium at the local level. That request was largely disregarded by the judiciary as most courts resumed hearing what was then a backlog of more than 12,000 cases.

In the absence of judicial intervention, advocates continue to push Northam to use his executive authority to halt eviction proceedings, noting that Black residents face a disproportionate share of eviction filings even after accounting for income and other factors.

“Governor, time has run out for thousands of vulnerable families already suffering the effects of the pandemic. This action is past due. You have tried every other avenue. There is no option left but to do this to ensure that renters get immediate protection,” the Rev. Keith Savage, a Baptist minister in Manassas who is co-chairman of Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement, said during a press conference Monday, according to The Washington Post.

Northam has acknowledged the need, writing in his latest request to Lemon that potential evictions in areas with rising cases “pose a significant public health threat.” But he has consistently resisted calls to use his executive authority to address the issue and Yarmosky has said he’s concerned “about differing legal opinions on his authority to enact a moratorium.”

Any continuation of the moratorium faces stiff opposition from landlords.

“What the governor asks would also leave landlords suffering months upon end of nonpayment without the ability to pursue collection, or to replace defaulting tenants with those who might pay,” wrote Richmond lawyer Brad Marrs in a letter to Lemons, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Justin Mattingly. “Essentially the governor seeks a wealth transfer from property owners to tenants.”

Northam, lawmakers and advocates expect to weigh housing issues stemming from the pandemic during a special session of the General Assembly scheduled to convene Aug. 18, including a potential moratorium.

“I intend to work with the General Assembly when they convene on August 18, 2020, for a special session to develop additional legislative protections for tenants so they may remain safely housed while we are still in the midst of the state of emergency,” Northam wrote in his letter to Lemons.