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As Courts Reopen, Advocates Warn Against Evictions

richmond general district court

Hundreds of evictions are on the docket this week as some Virginia courts begin hearing non-emergency cases for the first time since a judicial emergency halted proceedings in March. But advocates are concerned that a lack of instruction to courts and tenants will lead to wrongful evictions. 

Attorneys with Virginia Poverty Law Center and the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society are requesting that courts in Lynchburg and Petersburg delay eviction hearings until certain tenant advisories are in place, including written notice of safety precautions and restrictions to entering courthouses, and Instruction on how to request virtual hearings. 

Steve Fischbach, director of litigation with VPLC, said courts’ rulings on evictions may also pose a public health risk. 

“The advice that almost all health professionals are giving as the best way to stop the spread of the virus is to stay at home,” Fischbach said. “If you get evicted, you have no home.”

While there is no state-mandated moratorium on evictions, there are certain state and federal protections against them, including: 

  • A new state law that, upon request from the courts, gives tenants a 60-day grace period to catch up on missed rent before having to face eviction proceedings;
  • Another which caps late fees at either 10% of a person’s monthly rent or total amount owed; and 
  • A CARES Act-mandated eviction freeze for residents of public and subsidized housing, and a moratorium on eviction filings for renters living in homes with federally-backed mortgages

Despite a state Supreme Court memo outlining these provisions, Fischbach said they’re ineffective unless courts are given clear guidelines on how to handle them. A clerk of the court declined VPM’s request for comment. 

“If a case is coming in front of a judge, someone has got to raise that issue,” Fischbach said. “Now, if a tenant doesn’t show up, there’s no one who’s going to be raising that issue. The landlord will say, ‘Well, if I have my case I want my judgement,’ and the judge rubber stamps.”

Richard Chumney with The News Advance reports that nearly 40 evictions were granted in the first day Lynchburg resumed non-emergency cases — a dozen of which were by default since tenants missed their hearings. 

Even during the judicial emergency, landlords could still file cases — and they’ve been piling up since early March. Fischbach said he expects the case load will be overwhelming once Richmond courts start hearing non-emergency cases. He said the city sheriff's office requested a review of safety procedures before reopening. VPM has yet to hear back from the sheriff’s office, after a request for comment. 

Virginia Housing and the Department of Housing and Community Development have compiled a comprehensive list of federal and state protections, and resources available for renters, homeowners and people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic.

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