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Evictions continue as COVID-19 partially closes Richmond courts

Map with title 'Virginia Eviction Tracker'
Eviction filings have skyrocketed since an emergency order closing courts due to the coronavirus outbreak ended. Concerns over COVID-19 dangers led to the closure of part of a Richmond courthouse - but civil hearings, including evictions, will continue. (Photo: Virginia Eviction Tracker map/composite by VPM News)

Following concerns of COVID-19 exposure, Richmond’s John Marshall Courthouse has closed its doors to criminal and traffic cases through Tuesday, August 4 or until further notice. But civil hearings — including hundreds of evictions — will continue. 

In an order issued Tuesday, the general district court’s Chief Judge David Hicks cited potential health and safety threats to court staff and the public. As a result, the court closed off the traffic section of its second floor — the same floor where 293 eviction cases are still being heard.

Bill Petri is a professor in infectious diseases and microbiology at the University of Virginia. He said while that is helpful, a significant risk remains. 

“Every person walking into that courthouse is potentially infected with COVID-19,” Petri said. “Even with wearing masks and social distancing, we can’t completely eliminate the risk of them transmitting that to someone else.”

The court clerks’ office confirmed that they’re implementing social distancing and mandatory masking rules — and are distributing masks to anyone who needs them. But legal aid attorneys who’ve been to the court since the announcement say it’s not taking any extra safety measures.

Steve Fischbach, director of litigation with the Virginia Poverty Law Center, said residents concerned about the disease who don’t want to miss their court dates can request virtual hearings by contacting the court clerks’ office.

“The ironic thing is that the judicial emergency order says that the preference is to conduct things remotely, but if people don't even know how to make that request, it's never going to happen,” Fischbach said. 

This week, Virginia’s Supreme Court extended that judicial emergency through August 30. However, Fischbach said this mostly impacts jury trials — and has no effect on eviction cases being heard. 

He added that, for the most part, judges are continuing eviction hearings until later dates — but some are being pushed back to as soon as 10 days out. Fischbach said issues with that include a short notification period.

“They should be scheduling things two to three weeks out because sometimes the mail is slow,” Fischbach said. 

Another concern Fischbach cited is the lack of accountability in making sure residents know about the new dates. 

“That obligation falls on the landlord — which we have a problem with, because if they don't, there's gonna be no way to prove that they didn't do it,” Fischbach said. “So, I believe that those notices should be coming from the court itself.”

In Virginia, 9,441 eviction hearings are scheduled through September 18 — 1,440 of which are in the City of Richmond. In response to the high volume of cases, officials are requesting 60-day moratoriums from both state and local courts. 

On Tuesday, Mayor Levar Stoney, and 7th District City Councilmember Cynthia Newbille asked Richmond’s General District Court to halt all eviction-related proceedings, including hearings. They also requested in the letter that the court prevent landlords from being able to file unlawful detainers during the two month period — and to stop sheriffs’ departments from carrying them out. 

In a letter dated July 24, Gov. Ralph Northam made a similar request of the Virginia Supreme Court

“There remains the distinct threat that the most vulnerable Virginians will be evicted from their homes at a time when our public health crisis is expanding rather than contracting,” Northam said. “Safe, stable housing is vitally important if we are to successfully fight this virus.”

The state launched a $50 million, federally-funded housing relief program earlier this month. A spokesperson for the administration says Northam’s ask comes in an effort to buy some time for the program to provide financial assistance to those who need it the most. 

In the meantime, advocates urge anyone at risk of losing their homes to attend their hearing, or notify the clerks’ office if they’re unable. While judges are delaying many of the cases, that doesn’t include missed court dates. In those cases, the judge rules in favor of the landlord and grants the eviction by default of the defendants’ absence. 

Editor’s Note: This story was later updated to include more information about additional measures state and city officials are taking to provide residents with rent relief. 

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