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Tenants’ Rights; Rent Strikes and Virginia’s Housing Laws During COVID-19

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(Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting some Virginians’ incomes, but tenants are still required to pay their rents. And while tenants may have an opportunity to get in good standing with their landlords — advocates say going on strike isn't the way to do it.

The idea of rent strikes has gained some steam nationwide over the last few weeks, and signs encouraging people to participate can be seen in Richmond neighborhoods. But Virginia’s housing laws are less forgiving of tenants, compared to other states like New York. 

“Here in Virginia, if you don't pay your rent, there is virtually no defense,” Christie Marra, director of housing advocacy at the Virginia Poverty Law Center said. “If tenants are proactive, they actually have bargaining power. 

Marra said that residents facing economic hardships should inform their landlords of their inability to pay rent early and propose payment plans for when their incomes are restored. 

“Even though landlords continue to file eviction cases in court, even though they won't be heard for a while, none of that gets landlords money. In fact, it all costs landlords money,” Marra said.

The state Supreme Court declared a judicial emergency last month — suspending all non-emergency proceedings until the end of April. After that, the court can decide to extend it for as long as necessary. However, petitions for eviction may still be filed by landlords during this time. 

Some landlords may be eligible for mortgage relief under a new federal law — the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which could provide up to a year of forbearance to homeowners with federally-backed loans and, in return, allow them to extend that assistance to their renters. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also authorized the Federal Housing Administration to freeze foreclosures and evictions until May to protect single-family homeowners struggling to pay their mortgages during the coronavirus pandemic — it also offers foreclosure relief to homeowners with loans from government lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. 

Virginia Poverty Law Center and housing organizers are participating in a webinar hosted by Richmond For All and the Richmond Tenants Union on Friday at 5:30 pm to inform tenants of their rights, talk about the history and repercussions of rent strikes and to offer resources for residents facing economic hardships.