Virginia lawmakers push to extend pause on evictions, utility shutoffs

Coronavirus

RICHMOND, Va. (WFXR) – Pauses on eviction proceedings and utility disconnections are set to expire in Virginia in September. During the special session, some lawmakers are trying to extend the freezes and make it easier to pay back the debt.

If the General Assembly doesn’t act, utility companies could begin shutting off services for missed payments after Sept. 16. The moratorium on evictions would expire on Sept. 7.

Gov. Ralph Northam directed the Virginia Supreme Court to reinstate the eviction freeze until its current deadline after thousands lost their homes during a month-long lapse in these protections.

In response to repeated protests driven by housing advocates, a bill being proposed by Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield) could provide more long-term relief to Virginians who can’t afford their rent during the pandemic.

“It’s just so important to make sure we get something across the finish line in this special session. We’ve got thousands–hundreds of thousands–of Virginia families who are in crisis,” said Sen. Hashmi.

The bill would extend the eviction moratorium until 60 days after the governor’s state of emergency ends. Since that declaration has no set deadline to date, it’s unclear exactly how long the pause will last if the proposal passes.

Hashmi said landlords and tenants would have to work together on a payment plan and seek out financial assistance. New guidelines for the state’s Rent and Mortgage Relief Program now allow people to have 100 percent of missed payments covered going back to April 2020, according to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.

Hashmi said, under her bill, people could still be evicted for criminal activity.

Gov. Northam’s proposed budget also calls for an extended moratorium on utility disconnections for electric, water and natural gas utilities until 60 days after the state of emergency ends.

A bill from Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) would help utility customers deal with mounting debt.

“We want to make sure that when the moratorium ends and they have six months of bills due, they don’t have to pay them all at once because many people won’t be able to,” Sen. McClellan said.

She said the bill would require companies to offer a repayment plan over up to 24 months–without added fees–before shutting off service for non-payment. The bill also sets guidelines to make sure minimum payments are obtainable based on a person’s income.

Sen. Frank Ruff (R-Mecklenburg) said he supports stretching out missed payments but opposes the one-size-fits-all approach of extending moratoriums indefinitely.

“We need to do everything we can for individuals but we need to look at them as individuals and not have blanket programs that everyone knows how to work around,” Sen. Ruff said.

The State Corporation Commission, the agency that regulates utilities in Virginia, has warned that paying customers could see higher bills if companies begin shifting losses from those building up debt.

“The reality is that a moratorium on all service disconnections due to unpaid bills is not sustainable on an unlimited basis in the absence of programs to ensure that the growing costs of unpaid bills are not unfairly shifted to other customers,” the Commission said in a May 26th order.

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