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Demonstrators call for housing and education reforms

Protesters standing on Broad street
Demonstrators gathered outside the Senate meeting space to raise concerns against evictions. (Photo: Jimmie Lee Jarvis) (Photo: Jimmie Lee Jarvis)

Housing advocates from across the state held a demonstration outside the building where Virginia’s Senate met to kick off the special session on Tuesday. They called on lawmakers to pass more tenant protections in the midst of the ongoing pandemic.

Calls to action include using federal coronavirus relief funds to increase the amount of money set aside for the state’s rent and mortgage relief program from $50 million to $1 billion.

Advocates’ demands also include extending the statewide eviction moratorium until April 30, 2021 — something state Sen. Ghazala Hashmi has proposed legislation to do.

Thomas Assefa,  the organizing director with progressive advocacy group New Virginia Majority, said the extra time could not only keep thousands of Virginians housed but also safe during the pandemic.

“Housing is seen as a prescription when we have stay at home orders. It’s really critical that our tenants in Virginia are not displaced — are not houseless,” Assefa said.

Assefa said that with COVID-19, he’s seen more Latinx communities and other people of color face eviction. He added that without meaningful legislation, many families will continue the struggle to make ends meet and possibly face the risk of losing their homes.

“We have members who are undocumented, who have lost jobs or have had their hours cut back, who don’t qualify for any of the federal government’s relief packages,” Assefa said. “They ultimately have to make the decision to rob Peter to pay Paul, so to speak. Depleting savings accounts, borrowing money from friends or relatives — making hard decisions about whether to pay for food rent.”

Del. Marcia Price (D-Newport News) is also sponsoring a bill that aims to prevent evictions by helping residents catch up on missed rent. If passed, it would require landlords to offer payment plans — over six months or for the remainder of a leasing period — to tenants instead of evicting them. In the case that tenants are late in paying their monthly installments, the legislation outlines ways landlords can remedy the situation outside of court. Unlike some of the other COVID-19 assistance programs, tenants participating in the proposed payment plans could still qualify for other rent relief programs.

On Tuesday, other demonstrators gathered outside of General Assembly meeting places to call for increased state funding for K-12 schools. Videos also showed that far-right counter protesters confronted police reform demonstrators.

*Editor's Note: After publication, the Virginia Apartment Management Association sent VPM a press release critical of Hashmi's proposed moratorium. The group says the moratorium would violate a clause in the state constitution that bars General Assembly from passing "any law impairing the obligation of a contract." The group also says the moratorium would prevent companies that provide housing from operating.

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