RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- With another month of rent around the corner, Virginia lawmakers are still debating the best way to stop people from losing their homes without overburdening landlords.
Earlier this month, the CDC announced a nationwide halt on evictions until the end of the year to protect public health but advocates say the freeze doesn’t protect everyone.
The Virginia Poverty Law Center told 8News on Thursday that people in the commonwealth are still being evicted. VPLC Housing Advocacy Director Christie Marra said–in the week following the CDC’s order alone– there were at least 648 eviction judgments entered statewide. Marra said they have no way of knowing how many of those removals have been executed by law enforcement to date.
Marra said part of the problem is some tenants don’t know about the protections. To invoke the order, a person has to provide a copy of this declaration form to their landlord or property owner. Otherwise, they can still be evicted.
Marra added that the order only covers people being removed for non-payment, excluding violations that may occur when tenants take in family members long-term who aren’t on the lease.
“Imagine if your son, daughter or any other relative or close friend needed a place to stay,” Marra said. “How would we feel if that meant that we may all be kicked out on the street. It’s simply not the right thing to do during a pandemic.”
The General Assembly is considering a number of bills to prevent people from falling through the cracks but lawmakers have already backed away from one of their boldest proposals.
The Democrat-led Senate killed a bill that would’ve established a more sweeping moratorium in the commonwealth—only excluding those being evicted for criminal violations. That legislation from Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield) would’ve extended the pause statewide until 60 days after the governor’s state of emergency expires.
Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) said he thinks a moratorium will be passed in the budget but it will likely still exclude some people.
“I’d like to get done what we can get done and if we have to compromise, we compromise,” Ebbin said.
On Thursday, the Senate advanced a House bill that would require landlords to offer a payment plan before moving forward with an eviction. If a tenant fails to pay after those negotiations, they could still be removed in the absence of a moratorium. Debate continues on when those provisions should expire.
“This is an effort to benefit the tenant by giving them time…and to benefit the landlord to recover what they’re owed,” said Ebbin, who introduced the Senate version of the bill.
The Senate is also considering a separate bill that would shield tenants from being denied future housing based on a record of late rent during the pandemic.
Republican Sen. Frank Ruff (R-Mecklenburg) was one of the few lawmakers to reject these proposals in committee.
“I think we’re trying to solve a problem with an axe when we should be using a scalpel,” Ruff said. “We need to deal with the problem as needed, not with blanket proposals.”
In the House, Del. Marcia Price (D-Newport News) introduced a bill clarifying protections that have already been in place. The legislation says, if a tenant can show documented proof that they’ve lost income due to COVID-19, they can request a 60-day stay on their eviction, giving them time to apply for rent relief.
Price said some judges interpreted the law to mean that people had to experience a complete loss of income– rather than a partial loss–before the protections could kick in.
Many of the proposals being considered have the support of the Virginia Apartment Management Association but CEO Patrick McCloud said the moratorium extension goes too far.
“We believe something like that is clearly unconstitutional,” McCloud said. “The moratorium as it exists right now essentially takes private property for a public purpose without compensation.”
Gov. Ralph Northam announced on Thursday that landlords can apply for the state’s Rent and Mortgage Relief Program on behalf of their tenants, allowing them to recover current or past-due rent dating back to April.
McCloud said this is an improvement that they’ve been pushing for but it’s not enough to offset the damage of a continued moratorium.
“It doesn’t have any requirement that payment be made to the property owner,” McCloud said.