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Federal housing measures weak; state laws needed

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Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, who proposed an eviction moratorium at the special session. (Photo: Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch)

The COVID-19 pandemic has put millions out of work, leaving many struggling to pay rent. In response, state lawmakers are considering several housing protection bills during the General Assembly’s special session. Reporter Yasmine Jumaa spoke with Christie Marra, the director of housing advocacy at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, about the crisis. Marra said while there is a federal eviction moratorium in place through the end of the year — statewide measures are still needed. 

Christie Marra: If no action is taken by the state of Virginia, then there is a cliff — a very sharp cliff and it will come just at the time that the weather is the coldest, because this moratorium ends December 31. There is no rent relief associated with the moratorium, and there is no rent forgiveness associated with the [Centers for Disease Control] moratorium. So this is giving people essentially a grace period to access rental assistance and get the rent paid to go to court and get the case dismissed. 

There is also the fact that an individual landlord has just filed a case in federal court in Georgia to invalidate the CDC order. Now, I don't know that there will be a decision on that case anytime soon. I believe that they are however, asking for an injunction to stop that order from having effect. So that could happen before the end of the year. And that's another thing people should be aware of. 

I don't want any tenants to think that they don't have to go to court. It's still very important that they go to court. It's still very important that they try to access the rental assistance. That's being distributed by about 30 grantees here in the Richmond area. It's the ACTS program that's distributing the rental assistance. This rental assistance is available to anybody whose household income is under 80% of the area, median income, and who has lost income for any reason related to COVID. 

Do you qualify for protection under the CDC-ordered eviction freeze? You can access the federal form declaring financial hardship here

Are there any types of evictions that can still be heard or take place during the federal moratorium?

CM: Yes, any eviction that is not based on rent payments. And we expect, because of the moratorium, to see landlords coming up with rule violations when the real issue is non payment of rent, right? So things like noise violations, parking in the wrong place if you have a car, having an unauthorized guest, having a pet that's not authorized — any of these things. Perhaps there was damage done to your window or door and you haven't paid the landlord to fix it yet. Any of those things are still potential grounds for eviction even under the moratorium.

And what was Gov. Ralph Northam trying to do with his recent action that the state Supreme Court disagreed with?

CM:  He asked the state Supreme Court to extend the order that expired on September 7th. And what that order did was that order prohibited the issuance of writs of eviction and the service of writs of eviction by the sheriffs. He asked that that be extended. And they said no. 

What does that mean exactly?

CM:  The CDC order is directed to landlords. So it prohibits landlords from doing certain things. So a landlord could not file a request for a writ of eviction — the writ of eviction is the final court document in an eviction case and orders the sheriff to evict the tenant. Writs are good for 30 days — and the prior Virginia Supreme court order suspended those writs. And so if there are any sheriffs out there who kept the writs that were issued before August 10, they could still serve them and use them to evict people. We are hoping that they won't. At least one Sheriff's department has said that if the tenants bring the sheriff, that affidavit that goes with the CDC order all filled out, then they will not evict them.

Could you identify the most significant pieces of housing-related legislation advancing through the special session? Do you see any more likely than others to make it through?

CM:  Del. Marcia Price (D-Newport News) and Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) introduced bills that were intended to help folks who either didn't qualify for the rent and mortgage relief program, or to help them after the pandemic. And those bills require landlords to offer tenants who fall behind on their rent a payment plan, and give them a chance to pay that off over the course of six months in equal installments before they take them to court to evict them.Those bills, both of them have been changed a bit. Del. Price's bill got a sunset clause put on it that would take it only until next July. Sen. Ebbin's got another bill by Sen. John Bell incorporated into it. And so it is now limited to states of emergency -- but they did pass their respective chambers and will be considered by the other side. 

The second piece of legislation that is still advancing is Del. Josh Cole’s (D-Fredericksburg) bill to make sure that somebody's inability to pay rent or a tenant who gets evicted during the COVID pandemic does not have that non-payment or that eviction used against him or her in the future. So what Del. Cole's bill says is basically landlords, when you are considering an applicant for tenancy, if that applicant has either an eviction or non-payment record from during the COVID period, you have to disregard that -- you can't use that as the reason that you deny a tenant a spot in your rental housing. That passed the House along strict party lines. 

How would proposed payment plans work with the state’s federally funded rent relief program? 

CM: S o the idea is, really that the payment plan is primarily an option for people who earn too much money to qualify for the rent and mortgage relief, because if you're getting rent and mortgage relief, you shouldn't need to be on a payment plan because the rent and mortgage relief program would pay all the way back to April 1. It would also help people who say they didn't pay their February rent either for some reason. So they could qualify for rent and mortgage relief, it would pay all the way back to April 1st and then they would enter into a payment plan for what they owe for the month of February. 

Does that program have the capacity to assist the volume of Virginians seeking relief?

CM: We have been told that the administration will add more money to that pot. As the money is depleted. There was an initial $50 million put into that fund. We know that it's nowhere near enough, we've asked for another $200 million to be put in, and this is all funding that's coming from the federal CARES Act dollars that has to be spent by the end of the calendar year. The short answer is the capacity is there in general, but the money hasn't been specifically allotted to the rent and mortgage relief program yet. 

Sen. Ghazala Hashmi’s (D-Chesterfield) eviction moratorium legislation has undergone some changes. What does it look like now? 

CM: So that bill would freeze evictions until 60 days after the end of the COVID state of emergency. And it would freeze all evictions, unlike the CDC order, except for those that relate to a criminal act that adversely impacted health and safety.

Delegate Price is also sponsoring legislation that would give renters who have lost work as a result of the pandemic a 60-day grace period to catch up on their missed rent before having to face eviction proceedings. How is this different from emergency legislation enacted back in April?

CM: She’s just tightening it up a bit. The administration of that 60 day continuance has been very spotty across the state. Some judges have required different pieces of proof. Some judges have given continuances shorter than 60 days. So it's been spotty. 

Do renters have any recourse if they can't get a hearing delay?

CM: Not really that's the problem. They should be contacting either the eviction legal helpline at the poverty law center or their local legal aid immediately because sometimes, and I think this could be one of those cases, sometimes good lawyers can go in with motions to set aside and motions to vacate and get orders like that reversed.

Can any of the proposed measures mitigate these concerns?

CM:  Yes, yes. What needs to happen is: the eviction moratorium should cover all evictions, not just those based on nonpayment of rent. That is the real key here. And they can put that in budget language. They can bring Ghazala Hashmi's bill back and pass that. So they definitely have options. But right now, the budget is the vehicle. Any holes that the CDC order has can be filled through action taken by the General Assembly in putting a moratorium into the budget. 

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