Renters' Relief Too Little, Too Late for Some?

Jun 26, 2020

Governor Northam has announced a new program to save cash-strapped renters from eviction, but critics are warning it may not be enough to prevent another crisis – mass homelessness during a pandemic. 

Experts estimate nearly a quarter of a million Virginians are close to losing their homes, and thousands could be evicted in the midst of a pandemic without financial help. 

“People who are renting, an awful lot of them were already in really over their heads just because there’s not enough affordable housing,” says Phil Storey, an attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

A statewide moratorium on evictions ends Monday, but Storey says some tenants who’ve lost jobs during the pandemic have already been forced to leave.

“We’ve definitely seen a big increase in illegal evictions by landlords, and that’s from all parts of the state, and it’s in a variety of different ways from changing locks to cutting off essential utilities to physical threats and things like that,” Storey claims.

Unfortunately, he adds, many renters don’t know what protections the law provides.

“A landlord has got to give the tenant a written warning.  The most common thing is a five-day notice that says you’re behind on your rent.  If you don’t pay x number of dollars within the next five days then we’re going to terminate your lease and take you to court to evict you,” he explains.

Some people misunderstand – thinking they have five days to leave.  In fact, with all the paperwork, most evictions take about six weeks – and tenants have additional protection if the landlord is getting low income housing tax credits or vouchers from the federal government.

Still, Governor Ralph Northam is concerned and has set up a $50 million fund to help people pay rent.

“We have an eviction crisis in Virginia and a number of our localities have had some of the highest rates of evictions in our country,” he told reporters this week.

Northam promised details of the program Monday, but warned a ban on evictions – issued by the chief justice of Virginia’s Supreme court -- would expire Sunday.

“Once the moratorium is lifted it is expected that thousands of Virginians will face eviction," the Governor predicted. "That’s just not acceptable, so today I’m calling on our chief circuit court judges around the state to further extend the moratorium as appropriate in their locality.”

It’s not clear why Northam passed the buck to circuit court judges rather than asking Chief Justice Don Lemons to extend the current ban.  Perhaps Lemons was unwilling – or maybe the governor was reluctant to further anger landlords who were unhappy with the moratorium on evictions.   Whatever the reason, attorney Christie Marra at the Virginia Poverty Law Center says the state’s rent relief program may be too late for some.

“There is a group of tenants who were unfortunate enough to have their eviction case heard during the first week in June. If there was an eviction notice entered against them, they might actually be evicted by the sheriff next week,” she says.

Marra and attorney Elaine Poon at the Legal Aid Justice Centersay it may also be too little – predicting the $50 million fund will soon be depleted.

“The Department of Housing and Community Development has requested $200 million in rent relief,” Poon says.

“We’re not going to be able to keep those people housed or make their landlords whole with $50 million,” Marra adds.

They fear some renters will end up on the street, while others move in with relatives or friends, making social distancing difficult or impossible and increasing the chance that more people will get COVID-19.