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Eviction Moratorium Extended Through July Can't Prevent Every Eviction

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The U.S. Supreme Court is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Last Tuesday, the same day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to keep a ban on evictions in place through July 31, a young woman in her mid-20s stepped before a Chesterfield County General District Court judge, eight months pregnant. 

An attorney representing her landlord in the eviction said she was in violation of her lease, which expired October 31, 2020. We’re only using her initials in this story at her request for privacy. Being evicted is a serious problem that can affect one’s ability to secure housing for years.

Chief Judge Matthew Nelson asked the tenant, G.M., if she had anything to say.

“Right now I’m high risk, and that’s been a problem. I have two other toddlers at home,” G.M. said. “I don’t know what else can be done.”

G.M. then said she had a question: her landlord had applied and received rental assistance to cover her rent initially, but G.M., “didn’t see why to do it [again] if I was going to be put out.”

“I can’t answer that,” Nelson said. “All I’m being informed is that the lease is expired, and they’re wanting – after the expiration of the lease – to obtain possession of the premises.”

G.M. thought the eviction moratorium should apply to her, because she was unable to pay her rent. Her landlord’s attorney showed Chief Judge Matthew Nelson a copy of an email sent to G.M. on April 28.

“I informed you in writing and in person before the lease ended that I did not intend to renew your lease and have repeatedly requested that you find other housing. You are in violation of your lease by refusing to vacate the premises,” read the email, which was included in court records.

Because G.M. was not officially being evicted for non-payment of rent – but because her lease had expired – she was not protected by the eviction moratorium.

“So that’s where you are,” Nelson told G.M. “It doesn’t have anything to do with rent or them not getting their money. Since the lease is expired, they’re trying to get possession of the premises.”

But the email from G.M.’s landlord indicated that it did have at least something to do with the money. She asked if G.M. would start paying rent, and if not, when she would vacate the property. 

Her landlord applied for and received rental assistance from the Virginia Housing Development Authority to cover rent from March 2020 through January 2021, was trying to apply for funds for February through May 2021, and was “doing everything in my power to secure funding to ensure you owe as little debt as possible when you do vacate the apartment,” according to the April email.

At the court hearing, G.M. asked Nelson for a little more time: “Is there any way that I can be given like a month or so?”

“That’s going to be up to the plaintiff from this point forward,” Nelson said. “The court can’t do anything legally based on these specific circumstances, OK?”

“So, ma’am – the court is going to enter in an order related to immediate possession. So what that means is that the plaintiff could get a writ of possession today, but they cannot execute it until after 10 days. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” G.M. said.

VPM asked to speak to Judge Nelson about this case, but was informed by Robin Jarrett, administrative assistant to judges in Chesterfield County General District Court, that “Judge Nelson will not be able to meet with you; he is not allowed to make any comments on any case.”

In the hallway outside the courtroom, G.M. started crying when asked about whether or not she had any family she could stay with. No, she said. She’s a single mom, supporting two other kids, with a high-risk pregnancy. She just had another baby in 2020, she said.

Although the eviction moratorium has helped millions stay in their homes, it hasn’t ended displacement and homelessness.

“Landlords can just not renew leases, and they can charge either a lot more rent, or they can sell the houses in the super-hot real estate market,” said Beth Van-Turnbull, executive director of Housing Families First. “We’re seeing that more often.”

Christie Marra, director of housing advocacy with the Virginia Poverty Law Center, said “That's a huge problem, and legal aid attorneys across the state have been seeing for months now, more and more landlords who are refusing to renew leases.” 

Experts say there are other troubling  housing trends, too. Fewer people are moving because of the pandemic, Van-Turnbull said, which complicates her organization – and others’ – efforts to help people experiencing homelessness and eviction find new, affordable housing.  

“Certainly, homeless services have been under-resourced and we are often unavailable to meet every request for homeless assistance,” said Kelly King-Horne, executive director of Homeward, in an email. “Our greatest need is for deeply affordable housing for households with extremely low incomes so that households can exit homelessness more quickly.”

The number of people in the Richmond region experiencing homelessness this past year has jumped dramatically. According to Homeward, 605 people were in shelter and transitional housing programs in the Richmond area at the end of June.

At the same time, Virginia courts were allowed to resume “non-emergency” hearings – including eviction hearings – in mid-May 2020, which allowed judges to rule in landlords’ favor in eviction cases for everything except non-payment of rent cases.

The Virginia Supreme Court approved a Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee opinion March 12, 2021 giving the all-clear for courts and judges to “include with unlawful detainer summonses additional materials which describe legal and financial assistance available to tenants, under specific prescribed parameters and procedures.”

The impetus for seeking the ethics opinion in the first place, says John Whitfield, executive director of Blue Ridge Legal Services Inc., was that, “Some judges were hesitant to do that [share legal aid resources], because they thought they might be showing some sort of bias in favor of that unrepresented person. Other judges thought that was naturally the right thing to do and would do it without hesitation.”


Kristi Wright, director of legislative and public relations for the Supreme Court of Virginia’s Office of the Executive Secretary, stressed via email that the ethics opinion “is not an order or opinion of the Supreme Court.” In other words, it’s up to each court to decide whether or not they’re comfortable including a list of legal aid resources along with official court documents.

A 2014 survey of Virginia court clerks and judges identified eviction and debt cases, among others, as “key areas of difficulty” for self-represented individuals. A number of court clerks “pointed to the need for a more user-friendly” system, and many clerks recommended that courthouses establish centers for people to access services.

“We basically have a legal system that's built on the premise that the users of that system are going to be represented by lawyers. When in fact, the vast majority of users of that system don't have lawyers,” Whitfield said. “So it's basically a design flaw, if you will, in the court system.”

Whitfield said he’s working with one chief judge in the Roanoke area to distribute information about legal aid resources along with legal paperwork to people being taken to court over evictions.

“They started doing it immediately once the opinion came out,” Whitfield said. 

In Richmond, the vice president and COO of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, Monica Jefferson said information about legal and financial resources is being distributed in Richmond General District Court, as part of an eviction diversion program. 

“We have been working with the court systems by attaching an information flyer to the summons and advising potential tenants to call us so that we can help them,” Jefferson said. 

There’s no information available about how many Virginia courts and judges are actively explaining the judicial process to defendants, and attaching information about legal aid resources when sending initial court notices about evictions. Wright said, via email, “We do not know of nor do we maintain a list of the judges and courts who are providing information on legal aid resources in unlawful detainer cases.”

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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