More than 100 people packed into the Albemarle County General District Courthouse on Thursday afternoon.
Over the course of nearly two hours, presiding judge the Hon. Matthew Quatrara went through a docket of more than 90 landlord disputes, the vast majority of them eviction cases for nonpayment of rent.
If that sounds like a lot, it is.
“That’s a huge docket,” said Lydia Brunk, co-chair of the Charlottesville Democratic Socialists of America housing justice team, which has tracked the outcomes of eviction cases filed in both Albemarle County and the City of Charlottesville since the COVID-19 pandemic began in spring 2020.
During the last two years, a big docket week for the city and the county combined would have about 60 cases, said Brunk.
“I don’t think we’ve seen anything even comparable to this since the very start of the pandemic,” before state and federal protections took effect and rent relief programs started up, said Victoria McCullough, Brunk’s housing justice team co-chair.
The vast majority of the eviction cases filed in recent weeks are from larger apartment complexes in Albemarle County, just over the Charlottesville city line. On Thursday, most of them were from the Abbington Crossings complex. Late July, many of them were from Mallside Forest.
These units are “probably the closest thing to affordable housing that a lot of people can find in this area,” said McCullough.
The number of eviction cases filed in this area has been steadily increasing for the last few months. This is happening for a number of reasons, attorneys and housing advocates say, namely that the last remaining federal and state laws protecting tenants from eviction for nonpayment of rent during the COVID-19 pandemic ended recently.
The first to expire was a national, temporary moratorium on evictions placed through the CARES Act in March 2020. That moratorium was then extended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, then by Congress, and again by the CDC before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in late August 2021 that it could no longer be extended.
Other pandemic-related tenant protections have expired one by one. As of July 1, a temporary extension of the mandatory wait period for a “pay or quit” notice from 5 to 14 days expired. So did the rule requiring landlords to provide tenants who were behind on rent either notice or offer of repayment plans.
But some of the most crucial rollbacks have to do with the end of the Virginia Federal Rent Relief Program, which used federal funds to help tenants whose already-low incomes were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, pay their rent.
The rent relief application portal closed at 11:59 p.m. on May 15.
Before the program ended, landlords who wanted to file an eviction against a tenant for non-payment of rent were required to apply for rent relief on behalf of the tenant. Landlords were also required to accept the funds if the applications were approved.
(As of late June, the program had disbursed more than $925 million to more than 104,000 households across the state, though the process wasn’t easy for tenants or landlords, said rent relief application navigators with the Legal Aid Justice Center.)
More than three months later, tenants and landlords who applied and qualified — including many of those who appeared in Albemarle General District Court last week — are still waiting for the rent relief payments to come through.
Another reason evictions may be up is inflation. Nationally, rents rose some 11.3% last year and they continue to rise at a fast pace, according to a recent Washington Post report.
As the price of goods and housing rise, evictions increase, according to the State of the Nation’s Housing 2022 study released in June by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. (Read the study’s fact sheet here.)
(Inflation, rising housing costs and eviction threats are hitting communities of color particularly hard, according to a report from Forbes.)
The colliding circumstances have left some individuals and families struggling to pay rent on time, or to pay it at all.
That much was evident in the courtroom Thursday afternoon.
There were more than 100 people in the room, sitting shoulder to shoulder in the seats, when Judge Quatrara began calling the docket at 2 p.m. At first, the room was somewhat noisy with chatter, and both the judge and the bailiffs asked for quiet multiple times — though that request did not apply to the half-dozen small children present, said the judge, who repeatedly applauded parents for their childrens’ patience and good behavior. In a few cases, people in the courtroom gasped or whistled when the amount of money owed to a landlord was particularly high, more than $8,000 in one case, upward of $14,000 in another.
Some of the folks called to the stand wore their work uniforms: CVS Pharmacy, Charlottesville Parks & Rec, Citizen Burger Bar, Whiskey Jar. Two brothers were called one right after another. Same for two cousins living in the same apartment complex. Most of the defendants present were Black, some were brown, and fewer than a half dozen were white.
In most cases, tenants disagreed with the landlords’ suit against them, and so trials were set for September and October, with multiple cases to be heard on the same day and time.
“With an increased number of evictions, it’s been very efficient” to stack the docket this way, Judge Quatrara mentioned during last Thursday’s proceedings.
Some of the cases had already been dismissed, as people had either paid the rent owed or started a payment plan. Still other cases were postponed as tenants and landlords wait on rent relief payments to show up. In a few instances, the tenants did not show up to court and the landlord was granted permission to file the eviction paperwork with the sheriff.
And it’s not over. Charlottesville General District Court, which hears landlord dispute cases Tuesday afternoons, already has about a dozen scheduled for next week, though not all of them are for eviction filings. More than 20 are scheduled to be heard in Albemarle General District Court on Thursday.