COVID-19 and evictions

A map of eviction rates in Richmond was on display at the main branch of the Richmond Public Library earlier this year. Each week, around 150 evictions occur in the city, but amid the COVID-19 pandemic, courts have reconsidered those actions.

By Martin Wegbreit

You would think that COVID-19 — the first worldwide pandemic in more than a century — would put a temporary stop to all evictions in Virginia. But you would be wrong. On March 12, our governor declared a state of emergency. A day later, so did the president. At the governor’s request, on March 16, the Supreme Court of Virginia declared a judicial emergency.

For three weeks — March 16 through April 6 — all court proceedings, except some narrow exceptions, were to be suspended for 21 days. The Virginia Supreme Court said:

“It is hereby ORDERED that NON-ESSENTIAL, NON-EMERGENCY court proceedings in all circuit and district courts be and hereby are SUSPENDED and all deadlines are hereby tolled and extended, pursuant to Va. Code §17.1-330(D), for a period of twenty-one (21) days.”

The order listed a handful of exceptions. None of them are evictions. Some courts halted evictions. Some did not, believing them to be essential or emergencies. On March 17, Virginia’s attorney general issued a clarification. It said:

“It would be an absolute outrage for Virginians to be evicted from their homes during this emergency, especially as we are asking them to practice social distancing and stay home to prevent further spread of COVID-19. This temporary eviction suspension is particularly important for hourly wage earners who are more likely to lose income and not be able to pay their rent because of business closures.”

Seems clear enough, but again, not for all courts. So, on March 18, the executive secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia issued a second clarification. It said:

“We have received a number of questions about the email notice I sent to you yesterday and specifically about eviction proceedings. The order entered on March 16, 2020, by Chief Justice Lemons declaring a judicial emergency in all district and circuit courts suspends ‘non-essential, non-emergency matters;’ however, in addition, it specifically directs courts to ‘[c]ontinue all civil, traffic and criminal matters’ with the exception of certain emergency matters. The directive to continue [postpone] all civil, traffic and criminal matters would include eviction proceedings. While new petitions for evictions may be filed, it is anticipated that eviction proceedings will be suspended for the duration of the order as they are not emergency or mission critical proceedings.”

Could not be clearer. Yet some courts continue to grant eviction judgments and writs of eviction. And some sheriffs continue to receive writs of eviction and put tenants out of their homes.

Thankfully, this might not happen in Richmond. On March 23, the Richmond General District Court heard two motions. The first sought relief in an individual case to stop an eviction set for March 25. The second sought relief to stop all evictions set between now through April 6. The Richmond sheriff had evictions in hand because they were ones issued, but not executed, prior to the chief justice’s emergency order on March 16 to stop all non-essential, non-emergency proceedings as an emergency measure due to COVID-19. Each week, an estimated 150 evictions occur in the city of Richmond alone.

The judge granted relief in the first case and said the court would rule the same way in any other individual case brought before the court. The judge also said the court expected the sheriff, who was in court, to follow — in all scheduled evictions — the relief granted in the individual case. It is unlikely there will be evictions in Richmond from now through April 6th.

In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, no legal, ethical, moral or social code can possibly justify putting people out of their homes.

Everything we’ve heard is to stay at home as much as possible. Getting evicted is exactly the opposite of staying home as much as possible. People need to self-quarantine. People need to reduce their social interactions. People need shelter. Lost rent can be made up. People’s lives cannot be.

In April 2018, Virginia was shown to have five of the highest 10 eviction rates among large U.S. cities, and three of the highest five eviction rates among mid-size U.S. cities. Since then, I have been asked why many times. My list of a dozen reasons includes a lack of affordable housing, high poverty rates and Virginia’s history of redlining.

But I missed the biggest one. If Virginia will not stop every single eviction in the entire commonwealth for a mere three weeks in the midst of the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic, then sadly, Virginia truly is obsessed with evictions.

Martin Wegbreit is director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society in Richmond. He is also a member of the mayor’s Eviction Task Force and the city of Richmond’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund advisory board. Contact him at: marty@cvlas.org

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