What Virginia Renters Need to Know About Failure to Pay Rent During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Summer 2020 M-VETS Student Advisor Jonathan Moeller

The coronavirus has disrupted virtually every area of life. With uncertainty about the economy and thousands of Commonwealth residents out of work, many Virginians have been left wondering how they will handle their most significant monthly expense: the rent. Here’s what you need to know if you are a Virginia renter struggling to make your rent payments during the COVID-19 crisis.

Eviction Moratoriums

Policymakers fear what might happen if thousands were suddenly homeless during the pandemic.[1] At the beginning of the lockdowns in March, the Virginia Supreme Court ordered a moratorium on eviction hearings, which it then extended through modifications to the order several times.[2] The court system suspended most of its operations for several months before resuming somewhat normal dockets, including eviction hearings, which started again on June 29.[3] That day, Governor Ralph Northam started the Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program with $50 million dollars supplied by the federal CARES Act, aimed at forestalling evictions and foreclosures for certain qualifying Virginians.[4]

At the behest of Governor Northam, the Virginia Supreme Court once again amended the eviction moratorium, this time from August 10, 2020, through September 7, 2020.[5] Citing the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus and the difficulty in hiring lawyers and accessing the courts remotely during the pandemic, the Court found in a 4-3 decision the virus may “‘substantially endanger[]’ or ‘impede[]’ the ‘ability of [tenants] to avail themselves of the court.’”[6]

The order places a temporary restriction on courts that effectively disallows landlords from initiating eviction proceedings for failure to pay rent. “Effective August 10, 2020, and through September 7, 2020, pursuant to Va. Code § 17.1-330, the issuance of writs of eviction pursuant to unlawful detainer actions is suspended and continued.”[7]

Eviction Moratoriums Are Not a Get-Out-of-Rent-Free Card.

While the order offers some relief to Virginians who are behind on their rent, the eviction moratorium does not excuse a renter from paying rent. Rent continues to accumulate, and skipped rent payments will be need to be repaid eventually.[8] For renters who cannot pay their rent, housing advocates and property owners alike recommend immediately alerting the landlord.[9] Replacing a current tenant is a costly prospect for landlords, so landlords may be inclined to accept requests for a grace period or to set up payment plans.[10]

Additionally, eviction hearings for issues other than rent payment are still in effect. The August 10 order states that “this suspension and continuation shall not apply to writs of eviction in unlawful detainer actions that are unrelated to failure to pay rent.” This means that a landlord may still initiate eviction proceedings for other causes, such as a tenant causing major damage to the rental unit, allowing too many guests to stay overnight, or failing to comply with other obligations under the lease. Under these circumstances, a landlord must still issue notice to the renter in the form of a Virginia Notice to Quit.[11] The tenant will have 21 days following this notice to remedy their noncompliance with the lease, or else the lease will terminate 30 days from the notice.[12]

What’s Next?

The eviction moratorium ends on September 7, 2020. More relief for renters struggling to make their rent payments may be on the way. The Virginia Supreme Court may extend the order again, as it has done several times since March, or Congress may reach a deal for a rent relief plan.

In any event, renters should proactively form a plan. Renters may seek financial assistance through the Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program if they have experienced a loss of income due to COVID-19, have a rent or mortgage amount that is at or below 150% Fair Market Rent, and have a gross household income at or below 80% of their area’s median income.[13] Landlords may be inclined to create payment plans with troubled renters to avoid turnover in a volatile market. Renters should save whatever income they can to avoid falling behind on future rent payments.

If you do receive a notice from your landlord that you are being evicted, seek legal assistance. If you rent in Northern Virginia, M-VETS might be able to assist you or refer you to another pro-bono legal service that can.

[1] See, e.g. Press Release, Office of the Governor, Virginia Supreme Court Grants Temporary Statement Eviction Moratorium, (Aug. 7, 2020) https://www.governor.virginia.gov/newsroom/all-releases/2020/august/headline-859818-en.html (“As the ongoing Congressional stalemate leaves hundreds of thousands of Virginians without federal housing protection or unemployment relief, this is a critical step towards keeping families safely in their homes. I am grateful to the Virginia Supreme Court for granting this order, and I look forward to working with the General Assembly this month to develop more permanent legislative protections for Virginia homeowners and tenants.”).

[2] March 16, 2020, to April 6, 2020, http://www.courts.state.va.us/news/items/covid/2020_0317_supreme_court_of_virginia.pdf; April 6, 2020 through April 26, 2020, http://www.courts.state.va.us/news/items/2020_0327_scv_order_extending_declaration_of_judicial_emergency.pdf; June 8, 2020, to June 28, 2020, http://www.vacourts.gov/news/items/covid/2020_0608_scv_amendment_to_fifth_order.pdf

[3] Changes to Rent, Mortgage, Eviction, and Foreclosure Policies in Response to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic, 2020, Ballotpedia, https://ballotpedia.org/Changes_to_rent,_mortgage,_eviction,_and_foreclosure_policies_in_response_to_the_coronavirus_(COVID-19)_pandemic,_2020 (last updated Aug. 20, 2020).

[4] 13NewsN Now Staff, Virginia Extends Rent, Mortgage Assistance Program as Pandemic Rent Freeze Ends, 13 News Now (June 26, 2020, 2:35 PM), https://www.13newsnow.com/article/life/virginia-extends-rent-mortgage-assistance-program-as-pandemic-rent-freeze-ends/291-57dd76ee-cae3-481b-a815-63df37f93833.

[5] Jessica Nolte, Virginia’s High Court Won’t Extend Ban on Evictions; Moratorium Still Set to Expire in Early September, The Virginian-Pilot (Aug. 20, 2020, 4:27 PM), https://www.pilotonline.com/government/virginia/vp-nw-judicial-emergency-extended-20200820-6rmvtuet3fecroprgkcqhqzn44-story.html.

[6] In Re: Amendment of Eighth Order Extending Declaration of Judicial Emergency in Response to COVID-19 Emergency, https://www.governor.virginia.gov/media/governorvirginiagov/governor-of-virginia/pdf/ORD-08-07-2020-Amendment-of-8th-DJE-order.pdf.

[7] Id.

[8] Resources for Renters, Stay Home Virginia, https://www.stayhomevirginia.com/renters.

[9] Renae Merle, A Federal Eviction Moratorium Has Ended. Here’s What Renters Should Know., Wash. Post (Aug. 4, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/07/24/faq-federal-eviction-moratorium/.

[10] See Resources for Renters, Stay Home Virginia, https://www.stayhomevirginia.com/renters.

[11] See Va. Code. Ann. § 55.1-1245.

[12] Id.

[13] Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program (RMRP), https://www.dhcd.virginia.gov/rmrp.