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Despite Federal Protections, Local Courts to Hear Evictions

Row housing
Evictions are happening all over the greater Richmond region, even under a set of federal protections meant to keep people in their homes. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Editor’s Note: In an earlier version of this story, VPM stated that Southwood Apartments LLC filed evictions against 29 people with Richmond’s General District Court on March 27. Southwood has since shared documents with VPM showing unlawful detainers against 30 people dated and notarized on March 19. The court clerk’s office told VPM it didn’t receive the documents until March 23 — they were processed on the same day, but not signed by the court until March 27. The story has been updated and includes additional data from those eviction filings and a response to VPM’s questions from the property owner’s spokesperson.

Evictions have resumed in Virginia — with 9,383 eviction hearings scheduled statewide through the end of July. However, some properties are still technically protected under a federal moratorium put in place under the CARES Act

The moratorium covers residents of subsidized and public housing and properties with federally-backed loans. Through July 25, landlords of these properties are prohibited from charging tenants late fees, or taking any eviction actions against them for nonpayment of rent. 

New data from the RVA Eviction Lab shows that 1,055 eviction filings in Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield courts fall under these federal protections, and 131 of them were filed after the CARES Act moratorium went into effect on March 27. 

“What is the moratorium going to achieve? What kinds of protections are tenants going to be afforded in court?” RVA Eviction Lab’s Ben Teresa asked. “If people are in CARES-covered properties, and they have an eviction filing, the question then becomes: how is this going to be enforced in the courts?” 

Marty Wegbreit, the director of litigation with the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, said the moratorium protections and enforcement vary court by court, and sometimes even judge by judge within a general district court. In Richmond, a tenant would have to raise the issue in court for it to be considered.

“We believe every Richmond General District Court judge has an affirmative obligation to determine whether the court is properly exercising jurisdiction in every case brought before it, whether or not both parties are present or only the plaintiff is present,” Wegbreit said. 

According to Wegbreit, Chesterfield County General District Court requires landlords to submit a statement attesting to whether or not their property is covered by the moratorium. 

Christie Marra, director of housing advocacy with the Virginia Poverty Law Center, said renters facing evictions in CARES Act-protected properties can take legal action to get the cases dismissed, but it may be difficult to navigate without an attorney. 

“Technically you don't need an attorney, but realistically, yes, you need an attorney. To do it successfully you need an attorney. That's the way the system is set up,” Marra said.

Marra added that renters facing eviction in protected properties would need to file a motion to get their case dismissed, on the basis that a judge heard and granted an eviction before they were allowed to under the federal protection. 

Marra said tenants would have to act fast, because they only have 10 days to appeal these eviction judgements once they’re granted by a judge. 

“Let's say a judgment gets entered in one of these CARES Act cases on July 6. Ten days later, the landlord can get a writ of eviction [and] on the 17th, a tenant gets a notice from the sheriff saying ‘Hey, I'm coming to put you out in three days,’” Marra said. 

Marra said this goes back to a lack of clarity when it comes to enforcing the federal moratorium — while courts are technically supposed to be the watchdogs, she said the responsibility is falling on renters. 

Several of the companies that filed evictions for CARES Act-protected properties also received funds from the federal Payment Protection Program. Southwood Apartments LLC has 92 eviction filings at an apartment complex off Hull Street. The apartments are owned by Seminole Trail Management, LLC, which received $1-2 million in PPP funds. The company reported it retained 154 jobs. Seminole Trail Management declined to comment for this story.

Cannon/Morningside LLC, with a property off Jahnke Road, has nine pending eviction filings and received between $150,000-$350,000 in forgivable loans from the tax-payer funded PPP program. The company reported it retained 31 jobs.

Southwood Apartments LLC and Cannon/Morningside LLC are included in the list of 131 properties that filed evictions after the federal CARES Act went into effect on March 27. 

Thirty of Southwood Apartments LLC’s filings were also entered by the court on March 27. The company sent VPM the unlawful detainers dated and notarized on March 19, which the Richmond General Court’s Clerk said they received on March 23. 

The majority of these filings were for overdue rent in March, most for less than $1000 and some as low as $550 or $600. 

Each eviction filing also included charges for late fees, damages for utilities, costs and attorney fees. Several of these fees totaled 40-60% of the overdue rents.

Southwood’s eviction filings came three days after Virginia's Supreme Court announced a judicial emergency, suspending all non-emergency court hearings — including evictions. 

Susan Payne, a spokesperson for the owner of Southwood Apartments LLC, said “Seminole Properties has always followed Virginia Law through the Virginia Court System.”

Richmond Dairy Associates LP, also known as Colony Management Corporation, has five pending filings in its iconic milk jug building on West Marshall Street. Colony received between $350,000 and $1 million, though it also reported no jobs were retained. 

VPM’s analysis also shows Virginia Supportive Housing, with six pending eviction filings, received between $1 and 2 million and retained 143 jobs. 

The other property owners did not respond to VPM’s request for comment by deadline.

The fact that evictions are proceeding in properties that are supposed to be protected by the federal policies passed in the wake of the pandemic highlights long standing inequities, RVA Eviction Lab’s Ben Teresa said.

“This moment further exposes that, okay, now we have a moratorium, but once again, how it's going to be enforced and how effective it is is almost entirely falling to tenants,” Teresa said. “I think the question is why should the burden of this moment, of a pandemic and economic recession, be placed on tenants.”

Teresa added that this is a good time for lawmakers, and state and court officials to take note of these issues, and work to fix them. 

In the meantime, VPLC attorneys are urging anyone who thinks they’re facing an unlawful eviction to get in touch with the center’s eviction help line at (833)-NoEvict, or (833) 663-8428. 

In Virginia, there are currently 9,383 eviction hearings scheduled for the month of July. According to the public access project Code for Hampton Roads, four greater Richmond region localities are considered eviction hotspots, including Henrico County, and the cities of Richmond and Petersburg. 

Editor’s note: We should disclose that the Virginia Foundation for Public Media received $1.59 million in PPP funds. 

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