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Sunday, December 05, 2021

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What the end of the federal eviction moratorium means for Richmond residents

The United States Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration's order to extend the federal eviction moratorium on Aug. 25, effectively ending the national hold and leaving Richmond tenants in danger of displacement.  

This Supreme Court ruling came at a difficult time for many Virginia residents, who are facing financial insecurity worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. Census’ Household Pulse Survey reported that in June 2021, 38% of renters in Virginia felt they were in danger of being evicted in the next two months. 

While the federal eviction moratorium did provide assistance to many Richmond tenants, evictions still persisted throughout the pandemic due to tenants not using the moratorium to its full capacity, Louisa Rich, a housing attorney for the Legal Aid Justice Center, said.

Rich’s dream scenario -- actually closing the courts to eviction hearings  -- only occurred for about a month at the start of the pandemic. With a full court closure, it would be impossible for a tenant to be evicted.

Since March 2020, 8,348 total evictions have been filed in Richmond, despite the moratorium, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.

Still, Richmond renters might have a glimpse of hope. About a week before the federal moratorium was overturned, Gov. Ralph Northam signed a budget bill that extended eviction protection in Virginia to June 30, 2022. 

The Virginia Rent Relief Program differs from the federal moratorium in that it requires landlords to apply for rent relief on their tenants behalf, according to NBC. The federal moratorium, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, required tenants to sign a declaration stating they had lost income during the pandemic. 

While the declaration was intended to put an official pause on eviction proceedings, the Virginia-specific moratorium only requires landlords to wait 45 days for rent relief. 

Some experts say this may not be enough. 

“I think there’s a way in which people respected the federal one,” Rich said. “It really was promoted as a moratorium, and there were criminal implications if a tenant produced a declaration and [their landlord] evicted them.”

That being said, Virginia’s rent relief policy trumps that of most other states. Virginia has distributed more than 52% of funds received from the federal government, according to Bloomberg, surpassing all other states. Texas follows close behind, with 46% of funds distributed.

Housing insecurity and eviction are not just housing issues, but heath issues as well. While the CDC’s federal moratorium helped keep tenants at risk of eviction in their homes, it was established as a public health measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19, explained in a statement by the CDC

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Elizabeth Wolf, an assistant professor of pediatrics at VCU, described how when families are evicted, they are forced to relocate to another home or to a shelter. By doing so, they are putting themselves and those around them at risk of contracting the virus by increasing the number of people they come into close contact with. 

Cat Long, Richmond and Henrico’s public information officer with the Richmond City Health Department, echoed these sentiments and emphasized the significance of personal health issues that can arise as a result of eviction in a Sept. 17 interview with The Collegian. 

“When you do not know that you have a safe and comfortable place to live, your body is in fight or flight mode, which is ultimately bad for long term health and can cause chronic diseases such as [high] blood pressure,'' Long said.  

At the start of the pandemic, the Richmond City Health Department hired “navigators” to speak with families after they were contact traced to make sure they had everything they needed to quarantine safely, Long said. 

Other challenges, including financial ones, can exacerbate the difficulties faced by renters during the pandemic. For many tenants, unforeseen expenses like a flat tire or parking ticket can create a dent in their income large enough to make it extremely difficult to pay rent, Scott Andrews-Weckerly, community engagement manager for the Community Foundation for a Greater Richmond said.

“One of the things that I don’t think many people in middle or upper classes understand clearly is that things that would be an inconvenience to somebody with a bit of disposable income … can set off a cascade of problems that result in somebody being evicted,” Andrews-Weckerly said.

The Community Foundation for a Greater Richmond is just one of many organizations throughout the city that are working to improve housing security for low-income renters.

Housing Families First is a Richmond-based organization whose mission is to eradicate homelessness by helping families move to permanent homes. Wolf, an assistant professor of pediatrics at VCU, recalled a patient she worked with who benefited from its services.

“One of the patients that I take care of was homeless,'' Wolf said. “She had serious mental illness, and she lost custody of her oldest child. An organization in town called Housing [Families] First got her into an apartment. She was able to get a job because she was able to get mail, and she got treatment for her mental illness and gained custody of her oldest child.” 

Working alongside community-based institutions are University of Richmond law students, who have been helping fight evictions by reviewing case files with the Legal Aid Justice Center. They are taking note of the recent increase in filings and searching to see what aid they can give tenants in need, Rich said.  

Scott Andrews-Weckerly, community engagement manager for the Community Foundation for a Greater Richmond, explained the significance community organizations have in mitigating the harmful and lasting effects of eviction on families.

“I dont think it’s possible to overstate how important it is that families have a safe, secure, stable place to live,” Andrews-Weckerly said.  If that’s upended, then everything else in their life is upended.” 

Contact City & State writer Eliana Neill at eliana.neill@richmond.edu

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