Northam cheered Friday’s order on Twitter.
“As the ongoing Congressional stalemate leaves Virginians without federal housing protection, this is a critical step towards keeping families safely in their homes,” Northam tweeted.
Four of the court’s seven justices agreed to a moratorium through Sept. 7, noting the “judicial emergency” caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The ease with which the COVID-19 virus can spread, the risks associated with traveling to and appearing in the courthouse for those acting pro se with certain health conditions that disproportionately afflict the economically disadvantaged, and the inability of many citizens to access the courts remotely or to hire lawyers who can argue on their behalf” could make it difficult for tenants to “avail themselves of the court,” according to the majority opinion signed by four of the court’s seven justices: William C. Mims, S. Bernard Goodwyn, Cleo E. Powell and Stephen R. McCullough.
The other three — including Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons — objected in two sharply worded dissents.
“Evictions for failure to pay rent have become a national crisis in these times of economic difficulties,” Lemons wrote in a dissent that justices D. Arthur Kelsey and Teresa M. Chafin joined. “There is not a person on this Court who does not share a deep concern for people in these circumstances. The differences expressed in this order have to do with the proper manner to address this issue.”
The three justices contended that the solution lies with the legislative and executive branches, which can fund and administer rent-relief programs. Northam so far has invested $50 million in federal Cares Act money in a rent-relief program, which has assisted 2,200 households and processed 940 payments to landlords on behalf of renters.
“The solution most assuredly does not lie with the judicial branch of government,” Lemons wrote. “The government should not expect one group of property owners who lease their property to tenants to finance their unfortunate circumstances. If there is to be a subsidy, it is properly the responsibility of the legislative and executive branches.”
Kelsey wrote a separate dissent, which Lemons and Chafin joined, contending that the “wholly one-sided” order denies landlords due process and property rights. They also said the pandemic does not meet the definition of “judicial emergency” under state law.
The General Assembly plans to take up the matter when it reconvenes for a special session Aug. 18.
Affordable housing advocates lauded the court’s decision.
“We applaud the Virginia Supreme Court for protecting tenants from eviction during this pandemic,” New Virginia Majority tweeted. “We now ask the General Assembly and @GovernorVA to ensure eviction protections AND adequate rent relief funding continue beyond 9/7 for the duration of this public health crisis.”
Advocates had pressed Northam to issue an executive order banning evictions, but Northam’s office has said the governor remained concerned about possible legal issues that an order from him might raise.
District courts across the state have seen more than 6,000 eviction cases filed, and more than half a million tenants in Virginia have been at risk of losing their homes, according to Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement.
But landlords, too, say the pandemic has threatened their own financial stability, especially as not all landlords have federally backed mortgages or funding that is eligible for forbearance, according to Patrick Algyer, executive director of the Northern Virginia Apartment Association.
Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Patrick Algyer.