Virginia Lawmakers To Propose Multiple Bills To Avoid Evictions
Virginia lawmakers plan to introduce multiple bills at their next session to help struggling tenants keep their homes amid the coronavirus crisis.
State Sen. Ghazala Hashmi told WHRO she’s working on legislation that would ban evictions until spring 2021. Another bill by Del. Marcia Price and Sen. Adam Ebbin would force landlords to offer tenants the option of entering a payment plan if they’ve missed a month’s rent. A tenant would then have several months to make up the rent before a landlord can file an eviction case in court.
"The goal is to keep families in their homes, to keep them safe and give them the opportunity to rebuild their resources," Hashmi said in an interview. "The situation with this crisis of unemployment is not going to be abated anytime soon."
The General Assembly will convene for a special session starting Aug. 18. Lawmakers are expected to focus on criminal justice, police reform and issues relating to the pandemic.
The eviction proposals would come at a precarious time for renters who’ve lost income during the COVID-19 pandemic. Virginia courts have already processed more than 15,000 eviction cases since late June. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest Household Pulse Survey from July 16-21, nearly a million Virginians either missed July’s rent or mortgage payment or fear they can’t pay in August.
The Virginia Supreme Court on Friday provided some relief for tenants, ordering sheriff departments to stop carrying out evictions until Sept. 7. However, local courts can continue hearing eviction cases and issuing judgments against tenants. Nearly 8,600 eviction hearings are scheduled across the state in the next eight weeks.
It’s unclear whether the court will continue the eviction ban past September. It if doesn’t, Virginia tenants could once again face the threat of losing their homes in the next two months.
On Saturday, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that he said would help prevent evictions. It came after a federal eviction moratorium for properties with government-backed mortgages expired last month.
However, Trump’s executive order directs the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to "consider" whether it's necessary to temporarily halt evictions again. It doesn’t replace the eviction moratorium that expired.
Hashmi’s bill would provide more long-term relief for renters with a statewide eviction moratorium for non-payment of rent until next April. The legislation would be the General Assembly’s first attempt to put an extended pause on evictions during the COVID-19 crisis. Until now, renters have relied on short-term eviction bans from the Virginia Supreme Court.
Hashmi said an extended ban on eviction proceedings could encourage more landlords to accept payment plans from tenants behind on rent. Renters would also have more time to apply to the state’s new Rent and Mortgage Relief Program.
WHRO has previously reported that the $50 million program has encountered challenges because many renters don’t know about it. The application process can also take time.
"Communities that are facing this crisis need assistance navigating the tremendous bureaucracy that’s in place to be able to file paperwork appropriately, to be able to demonstrate their need and then to be able to get a relief payment," Hashmi said.
The other eviction bill by Price and Ebbin would mandate that landlords offer tenants a payment plan once they miss one month’s rent. The tenant would have a few days to respond.
If the tenant agrees, the landlord must give them at least six months to make the payments. The landlord cannot file an eviction case in court during that period so long as the tenant stays up-to-date on other monthly rent payments. If the tenant misses a second month’s rent, the landlord can immediately pursue an eviction.
Part of the bill's goal is to prevent eviction filings in court, which start a weeks-long eviction process. Housing advocates say filings cause extreme stress on tenants and remain on their rental records, making it harder for them to find a new home in the future. Many landlords are less likely to rent to someone who has an eviction filing on their record.
Price said she’s still discussing her proposal with renters and landlords. The current version says the payment plan mandate will continue once the coronavirus pandemic ends. The final draft may change.
"If you have an unexpected expense that is life-or-death, or you’ve gotten this unexpected hit to your income, it is very important that we work to not make evictions automatic," Price said.
Tenant advocates have long called for more eviction protections amid the pandemic. Jon Liss, executive director of the nonprofit organization New Virginia Majority, praised the two bills.
"People are just on the edge. And so you would see a level of homelessness and evictions probably none of us have experienced," Liss said. "So it's really important that the legislature step up and do this."
But the bills will almost certainly face strong pushback from the rental industry.
Patrick McCloud, CEO of the Virginia Apartment Management Association, said Price’s payment plan bill could be "dead on arrival." He said it gives renters too much of an opportunity to be late on rent. He could be more supportive of the bill if the payment plan mandate expires once the pandemic ends.
McCloud also said the eviction moratorium proposed by Hashmi could be "disastrous." He noted that landlords also have bills to pay and an eviction moratorium would incentivize people to stop paying rent.
"Everybody’s all for working with people," McCloud said. "But there are some cases where residents can pay but are choosing not to."
McCloud said state and federal governments should instead provide more financial assistance to help tenants pay their rent.
Gov. Ralph Northam has said he looks forward "to working with the General Assembly this month to develop more permanent legislative protections for Virginia homeowners and tenants."
If one or both of the eviction bills do pass and Northam signs them into law, Hashmi and Price noted it will take time to implement them. They may not take effect until October at the earliest. As a result, many people behind on rent could be at risk of eviction between then and Sept. 7 — the day the current court-ordered eviction moratorium ends.
If that happens, renters can ask an eviction court judge for a 60-day delay to catch up on their rent. They can also seek relief through the new Rent and Mortgage Relief Program.
Northam says he wants to expand financial assistance offered through the initiative. So far, it has provided assistance to more than 1,880 households.