RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – A new program to cover rent and mortgage payments for Virginians who have lost income from COVID-19 launched on Monday, one day after a statewide freeze on eviction proceedings expired in the commonwealth.
Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development Director Erik Johnston estimated that 50 thousand Virginians are at risk of being evicted in July alone. Advocates say that picture will get much worse when a pause on evictions for federally-backed mortgages and federal subsidies is expected to lift on July 25th.
In a letter to chief general district court judges across Virginia, the Governor asked courtrooms to delay hearing eviction cases until at least July 20, 2020 to allow tenants who need assistance to apply. On Monday, the governor’s office wasn’t sure if any judges had followed through with his request.
Johnston said the immediate goal of the Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program (RMRP) is to help Virginians catch up on missed payments since April 2020, prioritizing minority communities disproportionately impacted by housing insecurity. If any of the following statements apply to you, you may qualify for RMRP:
- You have been laid off.
- You place of employment has closed.
- You have experienced a reduction in hours of work.
- You must stay home to care for children due to closure of day care and/or school.
- You have lost child or spousal support.
- You have been unable to find employment due to COVID-19.
- You are unwilling or unable to return to previous employment due to high risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
In order to be eligible, households also “must demonstrate an inability to make rent or mortgage payments,” have a gross household income at or below 80 percent of the area’s median income and have a monthly rent or mortgage at or below 150 percent Fair Market Rent (FMR).
Johnston said, for now, people should expect one-time assistance, rather than recurring payments. He said that could change if additional federal funds are allocated, a timeline that’s still unclear.
Housing advocates have raised concerns that the $50 million in CARES Act funding currently supporting the program won’t be nearly enough to meet the need. Johnston confirmed that VADHCD originally requested $200 million in initial funding.
“It’s unprecedented times during the pandemic. We’re all working together quickly to make sure we help as many Virginians as possible,” Johnston said. “The current $50 million is what we need to stand up the program and the governor is advocating with our congressional partners for the $2.4 billion in need that we know will exist at various times throughout the pandemic.”
Virginia Poverty Law Center Housing Advocacy Director Christie Marra said the roll out of the relief program was rushed.
The governor announced the program last Thursday. Marra said that gave community providers charged with reviewing applications and distributing funds little time to prepare. She said many of these non-profits and local governments are already overwhelmed with other coronavirus-related assistance programs.
“Our fear is that people either won’t know that this money exists, won’t know that they’re eligible, won’t be able to apply in time before people have to go to court,” Marra said. “If they have a judgement against them, that could hurt their ability to get housing in the future.”
Johnston said he’s confident the program will be efficient. He said a network of about 25 local partners are processing applications. He expects tenants to get the money within a week after applying.
“We really think this program is going to work and we can course correct as we hear from communities,” Johnston said.
Marra said the only way to make sure no one falls through the cracks is for the governor to extend the statewide eviction moratorium through an executive order. She said, ideally, Northam should do this through the summer to give tenants plenty of time to apply for assistance.
In an email on Monday, a spokesperson for Northam said that an executive order “would likely raise legal complexities that would hinder the expediency needed to help Virginians.”
The spokesperson said Virginia’s Chief Justice only agreed to suspended evictions statewide for 21 days — until the Commonwealth could implement a rent relief program.
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