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61 and counting: evictions continue in Richmond area despite federal moratorium

61 and counting: evictions continue in Richmond area despite federal moratorium

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The notice posted on Ladontis Holland’s front door in the second week of September forewarned an impending eviction.

The 29-year-old knew he could not pay the thousands in back rent he owed his landlord. At least six calls he made to a local nonprofit fielding rent relief requests went unreturned, he said. He sought out a legal aid lawyer who told him there was another way he could save his home, at least through the end of the year: by filling out a Centers for Disease Control declaration under the federal evictions moratorium.

On the declaration, he swore he couldn’t afford his $750 rent, but that he would try his best to make partial payments to his landlord. He swore he had done what he could to seek assistance that’s available. And he swore he would end up homeless if he lost his housing. He signed the document and slipped it into his property manager’s drop box with a $300 payment toward his balance.

Six days later, two Richmond sheriff’s deputies showed up to his house, ready to lock out Holland, his pregnant girlfriend and their 10-month-old son.

What led up to the moment is in dispute. Holland’s landlord — Dodson Property Management — said it had received the legally enforceable declaration and asked the Richmond Sheriff’s Office to cancel his eviction. The Richmond Sheriff’s Office said it did not receive any such request, so it sent its deputies to carry out the eviction as planned.

Holland knew only that the worst-case scenario appeared to be unfolding.

As many as 262,000 households across the state are at risk of eviction, according to the RVA Eviction Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The Supreme Court of Virginia declined a request from Gov. Ralph Northam earlier this month to extend a state freeze on evictions for nonpayment of rent, citing the federal moratorium established to keep renters housed during the public health crisis.

During a special legislative session, state lawmakers have, so far, not committed to a blanket ban on evictions that would supersede the federal order, despite calls from advocates who worry the CDC moratorium leaves tenants vulnerable amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

How many tenants locally have taken advantage of it to date is unclear. Local courts are not tracking the number because a tenant does not have to file a declaration with the court.

But legal aid attorneys who help tenants facing eviction say few know about the declaration, and those who do have, in some instances, encountered unnecessary obstacles or outright pushback when they have sought to assert its protections.

“It’s very obvious that even with these protections on paper, that’s not how it works, way too many times,” said Phil Storey, a housing attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

In Chesterfield County, a tenant had to request an emergency hearing when the landlord refused to call off a scheduled eviction after receiving a signed declaration. A judge quashed the eviction, according to Palmer Heenan, an attorney who represented the tenant. An identical situation is unfolding for a Henrico County tenant Heenan represents.

In the past two weeks, 61 households were evicted in Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico, according to figures provided by the sheriff’s office in each locality. The number may be an undercount. It does not include tenants who left their homes before a formal eviction was executed.

Holland’s was slated to be one of them the morning the deputies showed up to his South Richmond home.

“I said, ‘I know that you guys have an eviction scheduled today, but we’ve already taken care of it.’ And [a deputy] said ‘Prove it.’ I said, ‘One second, let me run back in and get my phone,” said Holland, recalling the encounter.

Following advice from the lawyer he spoke with, he saved an electronic copy of the declaration on his phone, just in case. He went back inside to retrieve it, heart racing.

“I didn’t want to alarm [the deputies]. They could have thought I was running in the house to do something else.”

After he produced his signed declaration, they wanted assurance from Holland’s landlord, so he called his primary contact at Dodson Property Management, but got no answer. He tried another number and began to worry that his word alone would not dissuade the deputies from carrying out their orders.

Elsewhere in the state, it would have.

At the outset of the pandemic, Fairfax County formed a working group of its sheriff’s office, local legal aid firm and various housing and human services agencies. The sheriff’s office shares its list of upcoming evictions with the group, which then seeks out tenants to make sure they are aware of the moratorium and other resources, said Andrea Ceisler, a sheriff’s spokesperson.

Since the moratorium took effect, Fairfax’s sheriff will not proceed with a scheduled eviction if a tenant has signed a declaration, whether its office hears from the landlord or not. The sheriff then notifies the court of the declaration with a letter from its attorney stating the eviction is “stayed pending further order of the court,” Ceisler said.

“If a tenant qualifies under the CDC order temporarily halting residential evictions and signs the declaration, the [Fairfax County] Sheriff’s Office will inform the landlord that we will not be proceeding with the eviction,” Ceisler said.

Richmond’s sheriff, Antionette Irving, has not taken that approach.

Irving said that unless her office receives notification from the landlord or court, it moves ahead with evictions as scheduled, regardless of whether the tenant has signed the declaration.

“Even with a signed declaration by the tenant, the landlord may feel that the tenant has not met enough of the CDC declaration guidelines to cancel the eviction,” Irving stated in response to questions about Holland’s case.

Holland makes $9.50 an hour working part time at a convenience store. His job cut his hours back over the summer, he said, worsening his money troubles.

His recent struggles began when his child was born late last year, he said. Then he fell behind on his rent at his Davee Gardens home. That led to an eviction judgment in February, before the pandemic set in, prompting court closures.

The CDC moratorium came in response to the pandemic, but a tenant’s eviction does not have to stem from economic fallout of the public health crisis in order to qualify for the federal protections. They must only meet criteria laid out in the order.

To qualify, a tenant must be unable to pay their rent due to job or wage loss or medical expenses and earn less than $99,000 annually, or $198,000 as a household. They must also have tried their best to secure governmental assistance that’s available and commit to making partial payments to their landlord. Lastly, a tenant must affirm they would become homeless or have to move to a relative’s house or another congregate setting if they lose their home.

If evicted, Holland said, “We would have had to pack up my van and live in it.”

By signing the declaration and giving it to his landlord, Holland swore under penalty of perjury that he met the criteria.

Once he had, what happened outside his house “shouldn’t have gotten to that point,” said Janae Craddock, a courthouse housing lawyer for the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society whom Holland met with before his scheduled eviction.

Renters can sign the declaration at any point during the eviction process, even if they already have a judgment against them or an eviction scheduled. If landlords do not halt the eviction once they receive the declaration, they can face steep penalties and even jail time stipulated in the federal order.

In addition to the physical copy Holland dropped off, Craddock sent an electronic copy to Dodson’s lawyer. A Dodson representative received the declaration and notified the Richmond Sheriff’s Office of the cancellation, said Tim Wehner, vice president of the company’s single family division.

Once Dodson received Holland’s paperwork, Wehner said the company had no intention of carrying out the eviction. He said that is why it did not send a property manager to be present at the scheduled time. In Richmond, a landlord must be present for the locks to be changed.

A property manager ultimately answered Holland’s call and relayed to the deputies what he originally told them about his declaration.

“I pray another family doesn’t have to go through it,” he said of the encounter.

The dead-end street where he lives, a few blocks from Jefferson Davis Highway, was otherwise quiet that morning. He said he was relieved his neighbors were not there to see him pleading to save his home.

mrobinson@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6734

Twitter: @__MarkRobinson

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