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Northam asks Virginia's Supreme Court for another evictions ban
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Northam asks Virginia's Supreme Court for another evictions ban

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Gov. Ralph Northam answers a question during a news briefing inside the Patrick Henry Building in Richmond on Tuesday.

With thousands of evictions pending across Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam is again asking the state's high court for a moratorium on evictions in response to COVID-19.

The governor asked for an evictions ban until Sept. 7 in a letter to Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Lemons. The prohibition, Northam argued, would give the administration time to work with the legislature to pass legislation aimed at giving more relief to people facing eviction beyond a program the state rolled out last month.

"The rise in COVID-19 cases has dampened the Commonwealth's ability to recover from the economic crisis following in the wake of the pandemic," Northam wrote in the letter, dated July 24. "This economic crisis has exacerbated the financial distress of many households across the Commonwealth, and it will likely increase the number of unlawful detainer actions as Virginians struggle to pay their bills."

Northam announced last month that the state will spend $50 million of its Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds for a rent and mortgage relief program, which officials rolled out after the state supreme court's previous eviction ban expired. In his letter to Lemons, Northam said the program has helped 1,880 households, with payments processed for 467.

Still, more than 6,000 eviction hearings were scheduled between July 20 and Aug. 7, according to the letter, leading Northam to ask the court to reinstate the ban. Northam did not ask the high court for an extension at the end of June, instead opting to ask local general district courts to delay hearing eviction cases until July 20.

"There remains the distinct threat that the most vulnerable Virginians will be evicted from their homes at a time when our public health crisis is expanding rather than contracting," Northam wrote. The need for Virginians to maintain safe, stable housing is vitally important if we are to fight successfully this virus."

Brenda CastaƱeda, the legal director of the Legal Aid Justice Center's Economic Justice Program, said she hopes the Supreme Court "takes immediate action to halt all eviction proceedings" or that Northam will use executive power to impose a statewide ban.

"Now is not the time for half-measures or slow action," she said. "We hope that the Court and the Governor act swiftly to stop evictions while families access the resources needed to stay in their homes during this unprecedented health crisis."

Northam said he'd work with state lawmakers on more eviction protections during the special session the governor called, which is set to begin Aug. 18.

Virginia's 5.12% eviction rate, representing the number of evictions per 100 rented homes. is above the national average, according to 2016 research from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. The city of Richmond, according to that same research, had the second-highest eviction rate in the country at 11.44%.

While Northam looks for a statewide ban, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and City Council President Cynthia Newbille are also asking for a local moratorium.

Stoney and Newbille, in a Monday letter to Richmond-Civil General District Court Chief Judge David M. Hicks, called for a 60-day evictions ban in the city, saying more time is needed to connect families facing eviction with the statewide program and with a city-specific program announced last month. Richmond is using $6 million of the $20.1 million it received through the CARES Act to fund an eviction diversion program, the mayor said in June.

"Although Richmond is fortunate to have a funded Eviction Diversion Program, the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic require a significant expansion of our interventions," Stoney and Newbille wrote. "Standing up these efforts will take additional time, and it's our belief that extending the moratorium on evictions by an additional 60 days will provide us the opportunity to get support systems in place to assist families facing unlawful detainers, but also to proactively support families through rent and mortgage relief to prevent the need for evictions to ever need to be filed, which will significantly reduce the trauma these families experience during these challenging times."

The letter said courts in the city were set to hear 1,451 eviction cases since the end of June when the statewide moratorium lifted, the highest number of cases in the state.

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