RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Some fear a wave of evictions could be coming at the end of the month when key state and federal protections are expected to expire at the same time. Now, advocates say Virginia’s Rent Relief Program will be the last line of defense for many.
A U.S. Census Bureau database estimates that 34 percent of adults in Virginia “are living in households not current on rent or mortgage where eviction or foreclosure in the next two months is either very likely or somewhat likely.”
It comes as a CDC eviction moratorium preventing removals for non-payment of rent is expected to end on June 30th after a recent legal setback.
Meanwhile, Gov. Ralph Northam’s office claims he doesn’t have the authority to unilaterally extend certain state-level eviction protections once Virginia’s state of emergency declaration expires on June 30. That order has provided regulatory flexibility during the COVID-19 pandemic for well over a year.
“I just didn’t see that it could be justified to continue the state of emergency but we’re going to do everything we can to help people stay in their homes. I hope landlords will continue to work with them,” Northam said in a press conference on Monday.
Asked to clarify why Northam isn’t maintaining protections through an executive order, as some legal aid groups have requested, Northam’s spokesperson Alena Yarmosky said in a statement:
Absent a state of emergency, the Governor’s Executive Orders govern the operation of state agencies and the conduct of state employees, not private contracts. However, Governor Northam has made affordable housing and eviction protections a top priority before and throughout this pandemic, and many protections are set to remain in place for weeks to years after the state of emergency ends.Alena Yarmosky, Gov. Ralph Northam’s spokesperson
Virginia Poverty Law Center Housing Attorney Laura Dobbs was among those calling on Northam to extend certain protections until the General Assembly could act later this summer.
Specifically, starting July 1, she said landlords will no longer be required to apply for rent relief on their tenant’s behalf, cooperate with them during the process or wait 45 days for that money to be approved before proceeding with a removal.
The Virginia Apartment Management Association has previously asserted that these requirements are unnecessary because it’s in a landlord’s best interest to get paid.
Dobbs said not all landlords see it that way.
“For a number of people, the only thing that is stopping an eviction from taking place is that CDC moratorium,” Dobbs said. “There are also a number of tenants who are trying to apply for rent relief but they are struggling to get the necessary paperwork from their landlord. Once these state level protections go away, the court is not going to just wait around to see if that application is approved.”
Struggling tenants will still have some options though. For example, current law allows 14 days for a tenant to make a missed payment–up from five days previously–before a landlord can serve them with a pay-or-quit notice. That law, which is in effect until July 1, 2022, also requires landlords with more than four units to offer a payment plan to their tenants.
Plus, through the end of September, Dobbs said people can request a 60-day continuance on their eviction case when a tenant can demonstrate to the court that the failure to pay was due to COVID-19.
“That doesn’t make the eviction case go away, it just gives them more time to catch up on rent,” Dobbs said.
Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development Director Erik Johnston said the state is continuing to update criteria for its Rent Relief Program to capture people experiencing financial hardship that isn’t directly related to the pandemic.
“There has been ever increasing flexibility from our federal funders on eligibility” Johnston said. “We are updating guidelines as we go to include more people.”
“Regardless of whether it is a recent income loss or something related to the pandemic, we encourage all Virginians to go to the portal and apply and more than likely they will be eligible,” he furthered.
Johnston said the easiest way to find out if you meet the program’s income eligibility criteria is to use the state’s online calculator.
The program allows Virginians to apply multiple times for a maximum of 15 months of rent cancellation. Up to three of those months can be paid forward. Later in the summer, when the General Assembly allocates a new pot of federal funding, that will increase to 18 months total, according to Johnston.
Johnston said the state currently has $524 million at its disposal for rent relief, though $161 million has gone out the door already. He said a total of roughly $1 billion has been awarded to the Commonwealth, including American Rescue Plan funds that will be officially distributed later this summer after a special session.
“There is an unprecedented amount of rental assistance available,” he said.
Johnston says, once an application is complete, it takes an average of 10 to 14 days to get that money approved. However, he said that process requires cooperation from both landlords and tenants and missing information can slow things down.
In anticipation of an influx of applications this summer, Johnston said they have taken steps to streamline the process and increase staff. He said they are also identifying local partners who can get the word out and assist with applications, particularly in communities of color and those with poor internet access.