RICHMOND — The Supreme Court of Virginia on Friday did not extend the moratorium on eviction proceedings as Gov. Ralph Northam had sought Thursday, citing slow progress on housing relief in the General Assembly’s special session.
The justices extended the judicial emergency in response to COVID-19 until Oct. 11, but not the moratorium. Justices William C. Mims and Cleo Powell dissented, with Mims writing: “I would grant the request of Governor Northam in part, to extend the current moratorium on certain writs of eviction until Oct. 1.”
In light of a federal eviction moratorium that took effect Friday, it is unclear where the high court’s action may leave tenants facing eviction.
A letter Thursday from Karl R. Hade, executive secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia, notifies clerks and judges about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s order that imposes a moratorium on evictions until the end of the year for renters who can establish they meet certain income and other requirements.
The CDC order does not prevent evictions on other grounds or relieve the renter of future obligations to pay rent in full, Hade noted in his letter made available by the governor’s office.
Alena Yarmosky, a spokeswoman for Northam, said Friday that the governor was “pleased to see the Virginia Supreme Court’s recognition that the federal eviction moratorium is in place through Dec. 31, even if it’s different from the state-level protections he requested.”
The governor’s office said that while the recent order from the CDC was welcomed, it required further review.
“The governor continues to work closely with the General Assembly on legislation that will keep Virginians safely in their homes throughout this health crisis,” Yarmosky said.
Northam on Thursday asked the court to extend its current evictions moratorium, which expired Monday, until Oct. 1, saying lawmakers need more time to address the issue.
Christie Marra, director of housing advocacy for the Virginia Poverty Law Center, said Friday that the Supreme Court of Virginia’s moratorium held up any ongoing eviction writs. The CDC moratorium gives some breathing room to tenants who lost their jobs to get the assistance they need and avoid evictions, she said.
“What does worry us is that the Virginia Supreme Court order that expires on the 7th — it prohibits writs from moving forward. The question is: Writs that were issued and placed in sheriffs’ hands, are they going to move forward with those writs? That is our concern,” Marra said.
A court issues a writ of eviction directing the sheriff to remove a tenant from their apartment after the court grants the landlord an order of possession.
Marra said cases will probably be decided on a case-by-case and sheriff-by-sheriff basis. “And that really, really worries us. The most important thing for tenants to know right now is that if they have received any type of notice about eviction, they shouldn’t ignore it. They should be getting in touch with an attorney right away.”
“They can’t just assume that everything’s going to be fine, because eventually it’s not going to be fine unless they get in touch with both an attorney and the local program giving out rental assistance,” she said.
Eviction proceedings have been on hold across the state since Aug. 7 amid the financial pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic.
An earlier moratorium the high court instituted in March expired at the end of June, when Northam opted against another moratorium and instead directed local district courts to delay hearings until July 20.
Despite the state’s rent and mortgage relief program, there were more than 6,000 eviction hearings scheduled between July 20 and Aug. 7, prompting Northam to seek a moratorium.
The justices granted the request Aug. 7 in a 4-3 ruling. Chief Justice Donald Lemons, who sided with the dissenting minority, wrote that “relief for people facing evictions should not come from the court but from action by legislators and the executive branch.”
“Evictions for failure to pay rent have become a national crisis in these times of economic difficulties. There is not a person on this court who does not share a deep concern for people in these circumstances,” Lemons wrote.
However, he added, “The solution properly lies with the legislative branch and its responsibility to provide sufficient appropriations to fund rent relief efforts and with the executive branch to effectively administer such programs. The solution most assuredly does not lie with the judicial branch of government.”
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