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Evictions continue in Virginia despite CDC order extension

Tenants of the Woodner on 16th Street NW protest Sunday unsafe living conditions that they say are exacerbated by management's poor handling of the coronavirus crisis and are asking for rent to be canceled. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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With only days left before a deadline that would affect millions of Americans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday announced an extension of the nationwide eviction moratorium, a Trump-era protection that has remained a key policy safeguard for President Biden.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky signed the new order extending the moratorium until June 30. In the 17-page document, the CDC said that home displacement still poses a health threat as the coronavirus continues to march through American communities.

“No counties are currently considered free of spread, and only 8 percent of counties are considered to have low transmission,” Walensky wrote in the order, and continued that the health factors forced the agency to “conclude that immediate action is again necessary.”

But the moratorium’s extension comes as the policy faces a growing number of challenges from landlords. Tenant advocates also question the policy’s effectiveness, particularly in states like Virginia, where evictions continue due to loopholes and misinformation.

“I think a lot of tenants say, ‘Oh there’s a moratorium, that means they can’t evict me right now,’ but the reality is far more complicated,” said Palmer Heenan, an attorney with the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society. “Almost 11,700 actual eviction judgments were made across Virginia just between September 2020 and December 2020. That goes to show you the efficacy of this.”

Renters thought a CDC order protected them from eviction. Then landlords found loopholes.

Unlike D.C., where the local leaders have frozen all evictions, the CDC order applies only to failure-to-pay-rent cases. The order also requires tenants to fill out a declaration form, putting the onus on a tenant who might be uninformed about the options. The updated moratorium included a new declaration form for tenants.

“Part of the problem with the protection as it currently exists is that they require an invocation by the tenant,” Heenan said. “The tenant has to know about the protections. They have to print out and sign a declaration. And they have to bring it to the landlord.”

In Virginia, state law requires landlords in failure-to-pay-rent cases to apply for rent relief with a tenant or support a tenant’s bid for that relief, and the federal protection against eviction has been effective in allowing the process to work out, said Dipti Pidikiti-Smith, director of advocacy at Legal Services of Northern Virginia.

“It’s important to recognize the interplay between the CDC moratorium and Virginia law,” she said. “The extension allows more time for landlords and tenants to cooperate and apply for rental relief.”

But the main structural feature of the protection — that it applies to failure-to-pay-rent cases but not other causes of eviction — has been a fundamental flaw, housing advocates say. That continues in Virginia, Heenan and Pidikiti-Smith say.

“We’re seeing more and more landlords finding other reasons to evict someone,” he said. “Landlords are saying, ‘Well, you may be behind on rent, but I’m filing for eviction because of the noise complaint.' "

Pidikiti-Smith said her office has seen a rise in cases in which landlords are choosing not to renew leases. “They are using the lease expiration as a pretext. So if a tenant owes a balance, instead of giving a 14-day failure-to-pay-rent notice, which requires landlords to help apply for rent relief, they are just giving a 30-day notice that the lease is expired.”

Many housing advocates had hoped the Biden administration would close those loopholes. That landlords still have the ability to evict is particularly frustrating because Virginia has fine-tuned its rent relief program, Heenan said. The state announced last month that $524 million from the new federal stimulus package will go toward rental relief.

“The Virginia rental relief program has gotten better and better and faster and faster at getting money to landlords,” he said. “I have a tenant who we were able to go to the rental relief program and get her fully current on the rent. But they are still facing eviction because the landlord now is saying he is not going to renew her lease.”

"Some of the larger landlords in our area have really created great processes for utilizing the rental assistance programs in order to get what they are entitled to,” Pidikiti-Smith said. “But that information doesn’t seem equally available or is not getting to everybody. For the cases we do appear in court for tenants, the situations are usually involving medium and smaller landlords. It’s confusing for everyone.”

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