Last week, a crowd of about 30 people lined up in a single-file, socially distanced line outside the district court in Petersburg, Virginia. Among them was a 31-year-old woman who moved to Petersburg last summer with her 9-year-old son. The woman, who asked to be identified only by her last name, Edwards, was among the very first residents of Virginia to face eviction hearings since that state issued a moratorium on removing renters who’d fallen behind on their rent because of coronavirus-related job loss.
She’d been fleeing danger, Edwards says: An abusive partner forced her and her son to leave her home in North Carolina with almost nothing but what she could carry. But in the year since, she’d found a place to rent in Petersburg near her father and a job with an airline at Richmond International Airport. Then the coronavirus pandemic arrived, and her life turned upside down again. The airline let her go in March; the work she does part-time as a nail stylist also dried up due to the shutdown. She filed for unemployment insurance, but her benefits didn’t arrive until May. And she got behind in her rent.
“I finally got myself situated,” Edwards tells CityLab. “Then this pandemic happens. Now I’m risking being homeless again — not due to the situation I’m in, but because the whole world is in this situation, and the courts are not doing anything to help.”
She says she agreed to pay what she could for the April rent, but she and her landlord argued over the actual payment. Police served her with a notice of eviction on April 21, her birthday. At the time, civil rights advocates were pressing the governor, the courts, and the legislature to extend the eviction moratorium that Virginia, like many other states, passed in the early days of the coronavirus crisis.
Courts in Virginia resumed hearing these cases on May 18. Other courts in Georgia, Ohio, Texas, and 13 other states (including Virginia) have also resumed hearing eviction cases, prompting fears among housing advocates and civil rights attorneys that the worst-case scenario is at hand — a flood of mass evictions during a plague.
As of May 22, 13 courts across Virginia were open and hearing cases. Those courts alone (out of 120 total circuit courts) scheduled nearly 800 eviction cases to be heard between last week and this week, according to Christie Marra, director of housing advocacy for the Virginia Policy Law Center. As more courts open, their dockets are expected to explode. “You can only imagine how many cases will be coming in June and July and August,” Marra says.
When the Petersburg tenant received her eviction notice, she sought help. Kateland Woodcock, an attorney at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, lined up with her outside the court in Petersburg. Woodcock was able to argue for a 60-day continuance of her case, a right to any Virginia tenant who can demonstrate a coronavirus-related income burden under a law passed by the General Assembly in April. The attorney had the paperwork ready. But other tenants in the nearly 100 cases heard in Petersburg on May 20 didn’t have legal representation — or didn’t appear at all, resulting in default judgments.
“I would have probably not even had a place to stay, if I didn’t have a lawyer,” the Petersburg tenant says.
The end of state eviction moratoriums has exposed the limits of the protections for tenants at the local, state and federal level. Under the CARES Act passed by Congress, for example, tenants who live in a property with a federally backed mortgage can’t be evicted. This protection supersedes any expiring state-level eviction moratorium — but only if the tenant knows that the CARES Act applies to their circumstances.
“Those tenants can’t be evicted — they can’t even get a notice of eviction until the end of July,” Marra says. “But there’s nothing put into place in many of these courts to enable a judge to routinely make sure that a landlord is testifying or swearing under oath that his property isn’t covered.”
Most of the eviction cases going forward now predate the coronavirus pandemic, a reflection of the severity of the eviction crisis in what we now call normal times. Harris County, Texas, saw more than 5,500 evictions filed in February alone, a figure that dropped to 845 in March. Many of those tenants have since lost their jobs; probably some have suffered infection or lost family members to Covid-19. Or they live in properties covered by the CARES Act — but those protections don’t apply retroactively.
“We’ve been telling people: You need to pay the rent when you can,” says Mark Grandich, litigation director at Lone Star Legal Aid. “There’s going to be a day of reckoning.”
The looming deluge of evictions involves complicated interactions with the justice system. For example, in Texas, landlords filed some 1,400 cases over the months during which the moratorium was in effect (many of which should not have been filed at all, under the CARES Act). During the interim, Texas only allowed evictions to proceed that involved illegal conduct — a valid concern for landlords, but also a concession to law enforcement, since jails were releasing prisoners and police were reluctant to make arrests.
While landlords whose tenants were accused of violating the law were allowed to proceed with evictions, such circumstances were rare: According to Dana Karni, another attorney at Lone Star Legal Aid, only one landlord across Texas accused a tenant of criminal conduct, and the judge refused to hear the case. On the other hand, the number of landlords processing evictions illegally — by harassing tenants or locking them out — continues apace.
The vanishingly small number of eviction filings associated with criminal behavior suggests that the vast majority of evictions in Texas — and likely elsewhere — are related to nonpayment. This finding weakens a popular argument with landlords that evictions are critical tools for protecting properties or even tenants. Most evictions aren’t emergency evictions, either during the pandemic or before. And most every eviction moratorium provides for some kind of exemption for criminal activity anyway. The CARES Act and various state and local eviction moratoriums were designed to safeguard the millions of renters who have lost their livelihoods to the pandemic. Without enforcement, many tenants are already surrendering to default judgments or vacating properties where they have a right to live.
Eviction protections are proving hard to enforce in court, for a simple reason: Landlords have attorneys; tenants don’t.
“The eviction moratoriums are expiring before federal interventions have arrived,” says Emily Benfer, a professor at Columbia Law School. “Without immediate action, I think we will be facing a housing crisis of unparalleled magnitude.”
Courts are complicating the issue with a patchwork of standards and procedures. Many courts are still deciding how to reopen safely, with some experimenting with teleconferencing or video solutions. Trial-by-Zoom presents a slew of due-process concerns for households that do not have internet access. Tenants and landlords who stand before a video court would be appearing in their own homes, which could invite bias over disparities in living situations. In most states, it’s up to courts to determine how to proceed with hearing civil cases. For now, the best protection available to struggling tenants may be those in Maine, where courts aren’t reopening until August at the earliest.
By June 1, seven more states may begin hearing housing cases: Colorado, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, Tennessee and Rhode Island. That will bring the number of states with expiring eviction moratoriums to nearly half. Some of those states have a number of standing laws that can help keep tenants in their homes during the crisis — but they only work if those tenants are aware of those rights and are prepared to show up in court to pursue them.
Before the pandemic struck, several cities, including Baltimore and New York, passed laws guaranteeing tenants a right to legal counsel in housing court. In December, a bipartisan pair of U.S. senators introduced the Eviction Crisis Act, with the hopes of guaranteeing a lawyer to any renter in dire straits. That would shift the burden of proof, which now falls disproportionately on renters. Cities that have cemented this right guarantee that tenants can actually exercise the special rights afforded to them during the pandemic.
That’s not most places, though. Nationwide, the coronavirus housing catastrophe is just beginning to pick up momentum. The true eviction cliff could come in August, after the federal $600-per-week boost to unemployment benefits ends. Those benefits are helping tens of millions of households keep up with the rent. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already pledged not to renew these benefits.
For Edwards, the continuance for her eviction hearing will only provide a brief reprieve until July 22, when she’s due back in court. She’s receiving unemployment benefits now, which means she can make good on the overdue May rent. But she says that she will have little left to afford the security deposit and first month’s rent for a new apartment. Her lease expires in July, so even if she isn’t evicted, she feels sure that her landlord won’t let her renew for August.
For now, Edwards is scanning the scant listings for rental properties in Petersburg, worried about how the unlawful detainer filed against her will affect her prospects. After everything she’s endured, she worries that she and her son could wind up homeless.
“My days, really, are horrible,” Edwards says. “I’m worried about the fact that I know I have to move out of this house now, and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get another place. My days are full of stress.”
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