Thousands of June Evictions Will Flood Courts
As of Friday, Richmond’s General District Court has nearly 1200 evictions scheduled for the month of June. Although the city has an eviction diversion program meant to help people stay in their homes, housing advocates say COVID-19 will limit its reach.
Attorneys with the Greater Richmond Bar Foundation volunteer as mediators with the eviction diversion program. They work with both landlords and tenants to help them establish payment plans to get caught up on rent.
Marty Wegbreit is director of litigation with the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society — and also co-facilitates a city eviction task force, which works alongside the program. Pre-pandemic, he said these negotiations happened at the courthouse, on the day of a person’s hearing. But now, that’s unlikely.
“The eviction diversion program [is] going to require a major retooling, because the glue that has held it together has been the volunteer conciliators,” Wegbreit said. “It's unrealistic to think that anybody is going to do volunteer work that will expose them to an unnecessary risk.”
According to Wegbreit, this means that eviction diversion meetings will need to take place before court, or at later hearings. But that’s only if judges ask both sides if they’d like to participate in the program — or a landlord or renter expresses interest either before or during a hearing.
Wegbreit said in order to avoid mass-evictions, it’s important for tenants to know their rights.
“A tenant who lost income due to COVID-19, who is sued for eviction for nonpayment of rent, can get a 60-day postponement by coming to court with written proof of the income loss. But that word is just not getting out,” Wegbreit said. “That's the only way we [can] flatten the curve of this eviction tsunami.”
This 60-day extension is part of a new state law that went into effect last month. That extension is meant to offer tenants a grace period to catch up on missed rent before having to face eviction in court. Other protections include another new Virginia law which caps late fees at either 10% of a person’s monthly rent or the total amount owed, a federal eviction moratorium for residents of public and subsidized housing, and a moratorium on eviction filings for renters living in homes with federally-backed mortgages. But again, Wegbreit stressed the importance of tenants knowing about these measures to keep them in their homes — and to be at their court hearings to bring them up.
In Virginia, there is no statewide eviction freeze. Earlier this week, the Virginia Poverty Law Center reached out to the governor’s office to request an emergency order to do just that. But when asked about it during a media briefing on Thursday, Gov. Ralph Northam said he doesn’t plan to issue one.
The court, which opened its doors to non-emergency cases earlier this week, has heard 13 evictions — two of them were granted by default of tenants missing their hearings.
Wegbreit said when the cases ramp up is when this could pose a public health risk.
“We just can't have, you know, three or four hundred families getting eviction judgments against them every week, and then two or three weeks later getting evicted by the sheriffs,” Wegbreit said. “You can't shelter in place without a place to shelter.”
The city’s general district court is now hearing civil cases three times per day, between 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. In two weeks, it will move into ’phase two’ of reopening and begin hearing cases 10 times per day from 9:30 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. With expanded hours also comes an overwhelming number of eviction cases — some days as high as 325 hearings.