Legal aid, housing advocacy groups and tenants — especially tenants — are bracing for the inevitable wave of eviction filings that will crash on the shores of courthouses throughout the U.S. at the end of the month, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national eviction moratorium expires at midnight on July 31.
On June 24, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky signed an extension to the countrywide eviction moratorium that has legally prevented the eviction of tenants who are unable to make rental payments (though some landlords have used other reasons to evict tenants throughout the pandemic).
“The moratorium that was scheduled to expire on June 30, 2021 is now extended through July 31, 2021,” read a CDC-issued press release, “and this is intended to be the final extension of the moratorium.”
With this — and the fact that our community faced an eviction crisis even before the pandemic began — in mind, a few different groups in town have been working to help tenants either stay in their homes or keep a life-altering eviction judgement off their financial and legal records and are offering tenants advice on what to do next.
Since July 2020, volunteers with the Charlottesville chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) housing justice team have been canvassing, phone banking and offering court support to tenants facing eviction. They want tenants to know their rights.
DSA volunteers have also observed more than 140 Charlottesville eviction hearings in order to track data on eviction proceedings — courts only track the number of trials, but most eviction hearings do not proceed to trial for a number of reasons — and presented their findings to the Charlottesville City Council during a March 2021 budget meeting with the hope of getting the council on board with funding a right to counsel program for tenants facing eviction.
And in April, Charlottesville’s Human Rights Commission, with the support of a number of local legal and social aid and housing advocacy programs, requested that the City Council allot $460,000 in funds for a right to counsel program.
In Monday night’s City Council meeting, all five councilors voted to allocate $300,000 in American Rescue Act funds to an eviction prevention pilot program through the Legal Aid Justice Center.
Lydia Brunk, a volunteer with the Charlottesville DSA’s housing justice team, said that the group and a few others are advocating for a similar program in Albemarle County.
As July 31 approaches, Charlottesville DSA volunteers will continue their efforts and hopefully on a larger scale, said Brunk. “We’ve had a core group of folks who’ve been involved with this … and now the need is going to increase, so, we’re working on getting new folks trained up and ready to help meet this need, because it is going to be intense.”
Brunk said that the housing justice team saw an uptick in eviction filings as June progressed and landlords anticipated a June 30 end date to the eviction moratorium, but they slowed once the CDC announced the one-month extension. The group anticipates another and more significant spike in the next few weeks, though it’s difficult to know just how many eviction filings will pour into both the city and the county courts.
Both the Charlottesville DSA — (434) 260-0383 — and the Legal Aid Justice Center — (434) 977-0553 — are ready to help tenants facing eviction in the coming weeks and months. And while the DSA will do what it can as far as informing tenants of their rights, ultimately, said Brunk, tenants will need legal expertise behind them in court.
First, tenants should know that receiving an eviction notice does not mean they need to leave immediately. There are many legal steps and thus a bit of time between receiving an eviction notice and when the sheriff shows up to actually evict a tenant from the residence per a court order. A lawyer can explain those steps, from hearings to trials and payment plans, and, Brunk emphasized, tenants have rights throughout the entire process.
Landlords who own five or more units are supposed to offer tenants a 14-day pay-or-quit option (and if they do not, that’s grounds for a defense).
Tenants who lost income due to COVID-19 can request a 60-day continuance, and they should be prepared to show proof of loss of income. Sept. 28 is the last day people can request a 60-day continuance.
Tenants who are not granted a continuance have the right to ask for a trial.
Even those tenants who pay up before a court date should still check with the clerk of court to see whether or not their case is on the docket. The DSA can help people find that out, and it’s a crucial, but often overlooked step, said Brunk. If the case is on the docket and the tenant doesn’t show up, they’re much more likely to get an eviction ruling.
And, perhaps most crucially, tenants who have legal representation in court (almost all landlords do) have better outcomes than those who do not. That’s why a right to counsel program is so important, said Brunk.
The LAJC has a helpful Twitter thread on some of this, too, and can help explain some of the other, additional rights tenants have throughout eviction proceedings.
“Worst-case scenario, if you ask for a continuance or a trial, it gives you more time to figure out what’s going to happen to you if you do get evicted,” said Brunk about these strategies.
“This has been a really hard year for tenants,” said Victoria Horrock, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center and an expert in fair housing law. “You’ve heard all the stories, and we are fearful that an eviction wave is still going to come. Even with all the restrictions, many tenants have gotten eviction judgments against them in the last year because of their inability to pay rent due to circumstances related to COVID-19.”
“There has never really been a blanket eviction moratorium in place during the pandemic,” Horrock explained. The Supreme Court of Virginia closed courts due to COVID-19 in spring 2020, which “functionally stopped” eviction hearings and trials and thus evictions. “After courts re-opened, there has never been a complete eviction moratorium that protected all tenants, but there have been a series of patchwork tenant protections that have kept many tenants in their homes.” But “large cracks … existed in the COVID-related tenant protections,” and a tenant could have fallen through one or more of those cracks and still been evicted for pandemic-related reasons, said Horrock.
And when someone is evicted, well, many different things can happen, and most of them are not good.
“Virginia did enact a law that also protects those tenants from being denied [future] housing because of an eviction that was related to non-payment of rent due to the pandemic,” Horrock continued. “It’s a very hard law to enforce [tenant] rights on. [Tenants] have one to seven days, depending on how they got the written denial, to challenge the denial, which is really a very short window of time.” Not only is it a difficult right to exercise, it’s a right many tenants do not know about. “If a tenant does apply for housing and they have an eviction judgment on their record because they couldn’t pay their rent due to the pandemic, they should immediately tell the landlord that they want to challenge that denial,” Horrock advised. “If their eviction happened any time between March 2020 and the end of this month [July 2021], the landlord shouldn’t be taking that eviction into account.”
“It’s important for folks to understand how devastating an eviction can be,” said Brunk. “It’s not like you just leave your house and go somewhere else.” It can trigger an avalanche of problems.
An eviction judgment can affect a person’s credit score, which can affect potential future housing opportunities (landlords often check public eviction records before choosing to lease to someone) or opportunities for other loans (cars, etc.). Children in the home might have to change schools, families and individuals can lose their immediate support networks. If a tenant is behind on rent, they will not have the funds for a security deposit and first (and sometimes last) month’s rent on a new home. Moving might prevent new transportation challenges, and Brunk notes that people who are evicted are also more likely to lose their jobs over time.
People facing eviction stand to lose much, much more than the roofs over their heads, though that alone would be terrible enough.
“An eviction follows you,” said Brunk. “It is a momentous event. It is a life-changing event.”