Alexandrians Sit on Edge of Eviction

Alexandrians Sit on Edge of Eviction

Unemployment crisis due to coronavirus leaves families in jeopardy.

Legal Services lawyers Mary Horner and Alexandra Lydon advertise assistance for tenants facing eviction in front of the courthouse and assist filling out the 60-day affidavit.

Legal Services lawyers Mary Horner and Alexandra Lydon advertise assistance for tenants facing eviction in front of the courthouse and assist filling out the 60-day affidavit. Photo contributed

The impact of the coronavirus with loss of income has led to a roller coaster for many Alexandria families who have fallen behind on their rent. A mix of Federal funding measures through the CARES Act as well as a series of Federal and state moratoriums have given a brief reprieve from evictions.

Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed into law March 27 to blunt the impact of the economic downturn set in motion by the pandemic and to ease the worst of a recession. This act expanded unemployment benefits, made direct payments to families and made loans available to small businesses.

As part of the CARES legislation, a moratorium was imposed on evictions for rental properties with federally backed mortgages or that participate in various federal housing subsidy programs. This includes almost 40 properties in Alexandria. In addition, Virginia imposed a moratorium on other rental evictions, but that expired June 29. The moratorium on Federally subsidized properties expires July 26.

The CARES Act also allocated state and local financial assistance for rent and mortgage relief. Alexandria has allocated $4 million from this fund to this massive citywide emergency rental assistance program that has received more than 3,300 applications to date.

According to Helen Mcllvaine, Director of the Office of Housing, this will be used to help approximately 2,200 households that experienced COVID-related income loss with payments of $1,800 ($600 per month for three months). She adds, “In exchange for accepting the funds (which approximate the monthly cost to operate a rental unit), we ask landlords to certify that they will work with the tenant and the Housing Office in good faith to help the resident maintain their housing.”

Mcllvaine says the City is also offering a program funded with special COVID Community Development Block Grant funds from HUD that helps income-eligible renters in City-sponsored affordable housing projects make partial rent payments of $1,500 per household to their nonprofit landlords. With the $671,000 available, they expect to help approximately 450 households. “So far we have made payments to help more than 300.”

The Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program was enacted June 29 to prevent evictions. It provided $450,000 and is being administered locally by the Alexandria Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) to prevent evictions.

Kate Garvey, Director of the Alexandria DCHS, says, “We are having to use every tool in the toolbox.” ACT for Alexandria and ALIVE are able to get dollars out quickly. Susan Hahn says ACT has been a large source of grants while other sources such as FEMA are hard, hard work, mind numbing for little dollars.”

Garvey says they are trying to estimate needs looking forward. “We are still coming up short.” She explains if you have 1,000 households with $1,500 rent a month for 6 months, it translates into the need for $7-9 million. She says they are trying to work systematically. “One family at a time takes too long.”

Melanie Gray, Director of Outreach and Ministry for Historic Christ Church says, “We have been working on this for months.” Christ Church has a Lazarus Ministry that reaches out to assist with rental needs. “We knew there would be a time when evictions would become a real problem.” It happened on June 29 when Virginia’s eviction moratorium was lifted. In addition the moratorium in the Federal CARES Act expires on July 26. “We have to hustle.”

The new rental assistance programs have proven to be so popular they have stressed the system. City workers in their traditional jobs were called away from their normal functions to expedite and implement this new process and the courts to serve more eviction notices in a short timeframe than they could normally handle.

But community resources quickly focused on the need for immediate implementation. Gray says, “I applaud how quickly they assembled a system to disperse the CARES funds.” Garvey says they will be meeting with the delegation on Monday. “We will be making clear that this is one of our top priorities.” They will be requesting extra CARES dollars.

Statistics released by the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel and Stout indicate 342,000 Virginia households are unable to pay rent and at risk of eviction with an estimated shortfall of rent of $487 million dollars. This translates into 34 percent of renter households unable to pay rent and at risk of eviction.

Mary Horner, Staff Attorney for the Legal Services of Northern Virginia, who handles these eviction cases for the City of Alexandria, breaks down the eviction situation into three phases. She says phase one eviction cases were filed pre-COVID where people had fallen behind in their rent prior to March.q3 “Some judgments against them are pretty high because although the courts were closed the rental payments kept accumulating.”

Phase two is people who have fallen behind in rent payments due to the impact of the coronavirus job loss. It is difficult to estimate how many cases are in this phase. Horner says these cases are much more manageable because the rents have not been accumulating so long.

She said the cases tend to be filed by lawyers in waves.

“Just yesterday there were over 100 cases, many from Southern Towers, a 4,000 unit complex.” Horner says the number of cases filed for Southern Towers between mid-March to present is triple the number of cases filed between January to mid- March. Southern Towers is one of the few affordable housing that is not subsidized in Alexandria and thus not under the protection of the CARES Act on evictions. It is a less expensive place to live but quick to evict.

Horner says she anticipates phase three will come in about two months when the CARES Act protecting people from eviction has expired and the 60 day continuance period has run out. She says when people come to court because they have fallen behind in their rent there is a procedure available to delay action for 60 days but it requires people to fill out an affidavit. Legal Services has been successful in getting some tenants in danger of eviction to fill out the forms but a number of people are unaware of the law, terrified of court or feel going to court is currently unsafe.

Horner says Legal Services usually has a table outside the courthouse Monday-Thursday offering general legal advice and information as well as information on food distribution. “We just helped 20-22 people fill out an affidavit to delay eviction. The 60-day continuance is good because it gives time to work on solving the problem, to get the unemployment benefits or to find a way to pay the rent.”

Horner says she has been compiling court data since May. “This allows us to reach out. Horner says one of the relationships that is part of the Alexandria team effort is with the Sheriff’s office.

“No one wants to be evicting people right now. Believe me. The sheriff agrees to wait until the last minute so there is enough time to help solve the problem.”

Horner says due to the rapid implementation of the new laws some attorneys are uninformed about the CARES Act protections for tenants living in subsidized housing. As a result they were able to get a dozen cases dismissed the last couple of days.

But she adds that unfortunately when tenants receive an eviction notice to vacate in 5 days (even if it was based on misinformation), many self evict and then they can’t find them.

Gray says, “Reflect on what you might do. Every dollar counts.”

Horner adds, “We have boots on the ground. We are triaging emergencies. This partnership with the City and faith-based community and non-profits is unique to Alexandria. It is the benefit of our size and our tight knit community. Everyone is on the same team.”

Horner says, “I am blown away by our community’s ability to act due to established relationships.”

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