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Patchwork of protections leaves many vulnerable to eviction

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Haven Woodbridge Apartments

Peter and Eklyn Moriba stood outside the Prince William General District Court on a recent Friday in a state of shock. By simply saying “yes” to a judge at a preliminary “return date” hearing, Peter Moriba had set in motion their eviction from their River Oaks apartment.

The couple weren’t being evicted for failing to pay rent, although they said they were a month behind. Technically, new Centers for Disease Control guidelines would stop evictions for non-payment, but a tenant facing eviction has to know about and invoke those protections.

Peter, a native of Sierra Leone, said he didn’t even understand the hearing itself. When the judge asked whether he agreed to the facts of the case as stated by Andrew Palenzi, the lawyer for the River Oaks apartment complex, all Peter had to do was say “yes” for the judge to rule in the landlord’s favor. He thought he would be given a chance to plead his case.

Instead, according to the Moribas, they and their two children were being forced out of their apartment because Peter had been laid off, and when it came time to renew their lease, the property manager said they no longer met the income threshold to qualify.

“At least give us until the end of the month,” Eklyn said. “We don’t know [what we’ll do]; that’s the problem. There’s no finance coming to pay the bills. … There’s no sympathy at all.”

In the absence of a deal in Congress to extend renters’ protections, President Donald Trump’s administration made a splash with the CDC rule, intended to keep individuals and families from having to move into shelters or other cramped settings. It’s already facing a number of legal challenges.

But after the end of the Virginia Supreme Court’s moratorium on evictions and despite the much-publicized CDC declaration at the start of the month, evictions continue for people who say they can’t pay rent because of the pandemic’s economic impact. Last Friday alone, 25 eviction judgments were entered against renters and businesses at the Prince William General District Court, highlighting the patchwork nature of the CDC order and other efforts to help renters.

A week after the Moribas formally received their 10-day notice to vacate, a man named Roland -- who asked that his full name not be used for publication -- faced a similar fate.

Having made it through his initial return date, he was now at the formal hearing. Alone before a judge with no legal representation, he explained the situation.

“I lost my job. I haven’t been getting any steady income for the last three months,” he said.

But unlike many others, he’d caught a break during his return date appearance: At the courthouse he was told about a rent relief program administered by Northern Virginia Family Service on behalf of the county. With funding from the CARES Act, certain renters or homeowners can receive up to six months of rent or mortgage assistance.

When Roland told the judge that he was working through the application process, she granted a 60-day stay under a new law that went into effect in July, mandating a two-month delay for certain tenants facing eviction.

After his hearing, Roland told InsideNoVa that he’d been laid off from his pest control technician job and been trying to make ends meet through contracting work, but it hadn’t been enough.

Now, he said he was relieved to have 60 days and the prospect of financial help on the way. If he hadn’t been told about the program at his first court date, he said, he probably wouldn’t have fared so well. In fact, he’d avoided the fate of a number of his neighbors at the Haven Woodbridge apartment complex.

Tucked between Woodbridge Middle School and Prince William Parkway, the complex saw a rash of evictions after Virginia’s first moratorium expired. Public rental listings indicate that the complex has 138 units. According to court records, eviction proceedings have been initiated against 15 of them since July 22. Judgments were entered against eight tenants in August alone.

The complex is managed by Gates Hudson & Associates, which has initiated 42 other eviction proceedings since the end of July at two other complexes in Woodbridge and one in Manassas. Gates Hudson, which manages rental complexes throughout the Washington suburbs, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Crystal Kramer, an attorney for the Washington-based firm Offit Kurman -- which represents Gates Hudson -- told InsideNoVa at the courthouse that despite the CDC’s declaration, "there’s an affirmative responsibility on the tenant’s part to invoke the protections of the order.”

Sam Noori, a landlord and owner of two properties in the county, said the moratoriums and CDC directives are misguided. He had just succeeded in getting an eviction ruling against one of his tenants.

For mom-and-pop landlords like himself, he said, the lack of rental income is a bigger burden than it is for big property management companies. He suggested that if the government wants to prevent evictions, it should make rent payments to landlords on behalf of tenants or give individuals money so they can pay their rent.

“The government keeps delaying it, but they don’t care about the landlords,” Noori said outside the courtroom. “We’ve got to pay our taxes, the government doesn’t give us a break. … They should make a payment directly to the landlord.”

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration had tried to do just that. After some difficulty distributing money during the first months of its $50 million rental relief program, the state removed some strings attached to the money on Aug. 24 and allowed relief money to be applied to rent back to April 1. Since the change, the CARES Act-funded program has seen an increase in applications. 

But some housing experts say the program still has significant problems. Elaine Poon, a managing attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, said she’s heard of tenants having problems navigating the application process, and many people have no idea it exists.

If someone isn’t there to connect a renter facing eviction to the assistance -- as in Roland’s case -- it won’t be used. Poon said she has also heard about families doing exactly what the CDC was trying to avoid: being evicted and moving in with relatives, cramped in tight quarters.

Bills introduced in the Virginia House of Delegates by Del. Joshua Cole (D-28) and Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-10) that would institute a blanket eviction moratorium (except for cases of criminal behavior or endangering health and safety) have not moved out of their respective committees during the General Assembly’s current special session.

Two other bills -- one that would delay any eviction of a tenant who can show lost wages due to COVID-19 and another that would force landlords to develop payment plans for tenants late on rent -- advanced out of committee earlier this week.

“Even in good times, these proceedings are really hard to understand for your average renter who doesn’t have a lawyer,” Poon said. “And most people don’t know that there might be help available.”

 

 

Jared Foretek covers the Manassas area and regional news across Northern Virginia. Reach him at jforetek@insidenova.com

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Jared Foretek covers the Manassas area and regional news across Northern Virginia. Reach him at jforetek@insidenova.com

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