End of eviction moratorium could cause ‘tsunami’ of cases

Sarah Morton, John Whitfield, Molly Bell, Vanessa Keasler (with her dog Ranger) and Elizabeth Coltrane from Blue Ridge Legal Services. (File photo by Randi B. Hagi)

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

For those who have fallen behind on rent, eviction protections established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) could still help — for another month, that is. And locally, attorneys who help people facing eviction are bracing for an influx of cases once the CDC’s moratorium expires. 

In Harrisonburg, Blue Ridge Legal Services, which provides free civil legal assistance to low-income local residents, has used the moratorium to keep several clients housed during the pandemic. But Executive Director John Whitfield said there’s been some confusion for courts and landlords about who exactly is covered by those protections. 

The CDC’s eviction moratorium protects renters who earn less than $99,000 per year and are at risk of eviction due to not paying rent – so long as their income decreased substantially or they were laid off or had hours cut, or else they’ve incurred “extraordinary out-of-pocket medical expenses.” 

“You have to have some reduction of income, although it doesn’t necessarily have to be related to the pandemic. Just a reduction of income or increased medical bills,” Whitfield said. 

But the provision is set to expire June 30.

Blue Ridge Legal Services currently takes in about six clients each week who are facing eviction, but when the moratorium runs out, Whitfield said, “we’re probably going to see the tsunami that we’ve been fearing for the last year.”

That’s not just a local tsunami, either. Across the country, about one in seven households living in rental units are behind on rent, according to a survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. Of those 7.1 million households that reported they were behind, just under half said they were “somewhat likely” or very likely” to be forced out of that house within the next two months.

According to the docket listed online for the Harrisonburg Rockingham General District Court, 67 eviction hearings are scheduled in June, although many of those have already been continued from previous dates at least once. In contrast, there were 158 eviction hearings held in June 2019. 

Whitfield told The Citizen in a previous interview that Harrisonburg typically sees an average of 88 evictions per month in “good economic times.”

The CDC’s moratorium was first instituted last September, a few months after the moratorium in the CARES Act expired in July. (State governments, including Virginia’s, had stepped in in the meantime.) In December, it was extended to March, then in March, it was extended through June. 

The National Apartment Association and other landlord groups have challenged the CDC’s right to issue a moratorium in federal court.

But Blue Ridge’s Elizabeth Coltrane, an attorney who specializes in housing law, wrote in an email to The Citizen that those battles may not play out if the moratorium isn’t extended again.

“The end of June is coming up pretty quickly. It would be easier for courts to just let the moratorium expire rather than make a decision on whether the CDC had the authority to issue the moratorium in the first place,” she said.

Even though there’s only about a month left on the CDC moratorium, renters can still find somewhere else to go or sign up for help through the Virginia Rent Relief Program, which got a $524 million boost in federal funds in February, as Virginia Business reported.

Coltrane said she has used that combination to help some of her clients stay in their homes.

“If they can use the moratorium and the rent relief program together, it works really well. Or if they just need more time to make payments … or if they just need enough time to find another place,” Coltrane told The Citizen. 

She helped one couple give themselves several months to find a new home by using the CDC moratorium in court. The wife’s long-time job had closed for a few weeks at the beginning of the pandemic, and the couple fell behind on rent at the hotel where they were staying.

“We were able to drag the process out about 10 months … They just ended up having to leave in March,” Coltrane said. 

She said if clients facing eviction have already put in an application for state rental assistance, local judges have been willing to wait for those applications to be approved or denied before moving forward with eviction proceedings. 

Coltrane said anyone facing eviction should seek legal guidance, including by contacting Blue Ridge Legal Services, to go over the options available to them.

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