On March 16, Virginia Supreme Chief Justice Donald Lemons issued an order declaring a judicial emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, suspending all non-essential non-emergency court proceedings, including new eviction cases, until April 6. In the face of growing demands that people stay at home if they can, business closures and ensuing job loss, and an uncertain future for both the virus and the people whose lives it is changing, the order was received positively by many housing advocates and officials in Charlottesville.
As local authorities and providers adjust to the state’s new rules and add some of their own, advocates are keeping several concerns and priorities in mind as they look towards an unclear future for Charlottesville’s low-income residents.
Sunshine Mathon, the executive director of the Piedmont Housing Alliance, said his organization tied its eviction moratorium — which provides for the suspension of all activities and notices related to evictions, the postponement of court actions and the waiving of late fees — to Gov. Ralph Northam’s declared state of emergency, which was effected March 12. PHA owns and/or operates more than 600 apartments, including some that are specifically for seniors and people with disabilities, in Charlottesville and the surrounding counties.
“So to be candid, [the eviction suspension] has little direct impact on our decision making, where we’re focused on making decisions that serve our residents … as best we can,” Mathon said. And when the state of emergency is lifted, Mathon said, residents at risk of being evicted can enroll in PHA’s existing eviction prevention program to form a plan for paying their debts.
“I fully anticipate having many residents in the program once the moratorium is lifted, and so evictions will still effectively be on pause,” Mathon said in an email.
The Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority — which owns and manages 376 public housing units across seven sites in Charlottesville — partnered with the Public Housing Association of Residents to suspend evictions and voucher terminations due to the public health emergency. PHAR works to improve public housing policy for residents through community organizing and is governed by a board of public housing and Section 8 housing residents.
In a news release dated March 13, Betsy Roettger, chair of the CRHA Board of Commissioners, and Kathleen Glen-Matthews, CRHA’s interim executive director, noted that they had advised CRHA’s attorneys and property managers to postpone pending court actions, suspend all initial and final eviction and voucher termination notices, and rescind any outstanding eviction notices that were pending.
“That was at our urging,” PHAR lead organizer Brandon Collins said. “They saw the need for that immediately, and they encouraged other housing providers to do the same. So it’s good that the rest of the state saw that there’s this need to not take people to court and put them out of their homes when we’re asking them to stay at home.”
With the state Supreme Court’s order superseding CRHA’s initial March 27 end date for its eviction suspension, “[t]he CRHA will continue to have a temporary moratorium in effect, for evictions of non-payment of rent through April for tenants who are unable to pay rent due to circumstances related to the Coronavirus pandemic,” Glen-Matthews said in an email.
The city of Charlottesville, meanwhile, is encouraging multi-family rental properties to ease the burdens for tenants who may struggle medically or financially as a result of the coronavirus and therefore may have difficulty paying rent.
In a letter sent March 20 to 1,700 property owners and managers around Charlottesville, Mayor Nikuyah Walker asked that multifamily rental properties choose not to file eviction proceedings against tenants who are late with their April or May rent payments and not to charge late fees for those who pay their April or May rent partially or in increments at any point in the month. Walker referenced Lemons’ order and a 60-day eviction moratorium implemented by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on all single-family mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration.
The situation in Charlottesville: An expert explains
Brenda Castañeda, the economic justice program legal director at the Legal Aid Justice Center, said that her organization is having “whiplash” staying up to date with announcements from different agencies, governmental entities and private entities about their responses to the eviction moratorium.
She explained the Supreme Court’s order as such: “Nobody can file an eviction. Nobody can execute an eviction. A number of housing authorities and other housing providers in our area have agreed to not even get the process rolling, so not sending notices of eviction, which is usually the first thing you have to do before you file in court, is send a letter to the tenant saying, ‘We’re going to end your lease and here’s why.’ And you have to give them five days for non-payment of rent or 30 days for other issues.”
But she said not all housing providers in Charlottesville have made this same choice. In an open letter addressed to 23 low-income housing providers in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, several attorneys at the LAJC, including Castañeda, asked that they freeze all evictions until May 1 and conduct interim income certifications virtually.
Current legal proceedings related to evictions, Castañeda said, have been put on pause, meaning that even if a landlord has received a judgment from a court that a resident can be evicted, they will be unable to actually execute a writ of eviction through a sheriff’s office during the moratorium.
“If somebody has a judgment from before the courts are closed, they can’t execute it until the courts are back open. If they had something scheduled in court, it should be stayed until the courts are open again. And if something new were able to be filed, it wouldn’t be able to be heard until the courts are open again,” Castañeda said.
She said she believes the state’s moratorium will be extended based on how the pandemic is progressing.
“Things are not going to get better. They’re only going to get worse from here in terms of the danger of the pandemic and how widespread it is. And I think it seems to me like most of the state, agency, state governments are coming around the idea that there needs to be a longer closure of services, and more extreme closure of services, businesses, schools and so forth. So I would expect that the courts would do the same.”
Castañeda said more information can be found on the Legal Aid Justice Center’s website.
An affordable housing provider charts its path forward
PHA’s Mathon said that in a normal month, one or two households would be teetering at the edge of eviction and they would be entered into the optional eviction prevention program. But with the coronavirus, Mathon said, it’s impossible to predict the next few months.
“We are anticipating a significant impact for the residents that we serve across the board,” Mathon said. “And so we’re anticipating that a number of folks are going to be struggling to maintain their day-to-day needs, those priorities that they need to prioritize, food and medicine and all those things. And then being able to balance their rent payments as well.”
He said he anticipates that the number of people who would have gone into the eviction prevention program but for the coronavirus is going to rise. So, he and the other PHA employees are turning their focus to assisting residents with their needs.
Mathon said that the staff has provided support to residents who have requested guidance about how to keep themselves safe against the virus. He also said PHA has worked to ensure food security for residents by coordinating food bank deliveries and collaborating with the school system to ensure children have access to free lunch and breakfast.
“We also have established an emergency relief fund for our residents and have started getting donations from local philanthropists, and just anyone that … wants to donate,” Mathon said. “And we’re offering essentially for those residents up to $200 one-time cash grants to help them kind of get through these difficult times.”
People interested in donating can give here. Mathon said that his team is working to set up a healthcare-related hotline with the University of Virginia and other healthcare providers for residents to call if they have questions or need support.
“Particularly for seniors who aren’t used to going out, to working, but are used to having sort of a social context in their communities, these times are asking them to let go of that and to stay in their homes,” Mathon said. “And that can often feel very isolating for folks who rely on that.”
He also said he hoped that other rental companies, including those designed to make a profit, were flexible with their tenants during these times. But he said he knew that the coronavirus could have a strong financial impact on landlords, too, since much of the rental income goes to paying off mortgages on the properties.
“There is going to be a point at which we are going to be challenged, and probably other landlords as well, with being able to simultaneously pay the mortgage that is due on the property as well as pay the staff who maintain the property in the leasing office, pay the insurance on the property — all those things that are necessary to operate a rental community,” Mathon said.
Mathon said he hopes that lenders provide some relief to landlords through acts as forbearance of loans and interest-only payments.
“Every gear has to give a little bit in this,” he said.
In public housing, the stress mounts
Collins — the lead organizer for PHAR — said he is concerned about public housing residents getting evicted immediately after the moratorium is lifted.
“People coming out of this in April, whether they extend [the moratorium] or not, if they come out of this and they still have to go through the process of potentially being evicted, that’s not a really great thing to go from one crisis, straight back into another for people who don’t have many resources and aren’t able to accumulate resources,” Collins said.
He said he hoped housing providers in the area made an effort to help people get back on track during the moratorium to avoid evictions down the line and emphasized the importance of flexibility.
“I think our housing authority is in a position where they’re not they’re not trying to hurt anybody, what they want to do is make sure people have resources, and the resources to be able to do the right things, health-wise,” Collins said. “If this thing gets in public housing where things are a lot more concentrated, that could be really bad, so housing authorities should be working with any kind of health resources they have in the community, any kind of social work efforts that they have in the community, which this housing authority is doing.”
Sonia Bell, a member of PHAR’s Board of Directors and a public housing resident, said she is worried about several segments of Charlottesville’s population.
She is worried about her neighbors in public housing who have been laid off by local restaurants as they are forced to shut down dining areas or close down entirely and those laid off by UVa, which is requiring most employees to telework and has shut down most of its in-person services. She is worried about the kids who face food insecurity if local schools do not continue to provide meals through the summer. And she is especially worried about the elderly, who are at an increased risk for severe cases of coronavirus and therefore are not getting outside much.
“They’re being depressed because they’re in the house, and the older folks — they don’t get out anyway, so this is really, it’s really taking a toll on the older folks,” Bell said.
She said she wants to see Region Ten Community Services Board check on public housing residents, many of whom she said are depressed due to having to spend so much time indoors.
She said she hopes CRHA gives residents enough time to get back on their feet once the crisis settles. She said it looks like it will be a while before people go back to work and even when they do, the children will still be out of school for the rest of the year, making childcare costs a concern for parents.
“I’m proud of the [Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority] because they are trying to do the right thing,” Bell said. “But after this is over, they have to make sure that they’re still trying to help the residents … my thing is, don’t start this and then stop. Then [they’ll] start the eviction notices, start sending this stuff out — ‘Oh you’re late.’ You have to give people time, you’ve got to work with people.”