As evictions hearings resume in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, the Legal Aid Justice Center and Charlottesville Democratic Socialists of America are urging in-need tenants to be aware of their options.
On Thursday, volunteers from the Charlottesville DSA stood outside the Albemarle County General District courthouse talking to tenants about their rights and options.
More than 30 unlawful detainer and eviction cases were scheduled Thursday afternoon, the most in several weeks, according to Emma Goehler of the Charlottesville DSA.
For the last few months, the local DSA has been working to help tenants facing evictions by posting flyers at their complexes with information and, most recently, helping tenants to apply for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction moratorium letters.
“We’re doing what we can to help our neighbors deal with this housing crisis,” Goehler said. “The CDC moratorium is helpful but it still requires that tenants pay months worth of back rent, provides no rent relief and does nothing to solve the affordable housing crisis in our community.”
Thursday’s docket could be one of the most devastating, Goehler said, as more than 30 people were set to appear for the 1 p.m. window. However, by 2 p.m., many still had not shown up, likely meaning that their hearings would not be continued and would instead proceed.
One tenant who was present for a hearing was Gerald Perry, a resident of Barracks West. The owner of that apartment complex, Goldstar Barracks Owner LLC, was the plaintiff for nearly half of Thursday’s cases.
Carrying a worn blue folder stuffed with legal documents and receipts, Perry said his already difficult financial situation was compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Perry said he lost a part-time job at the start of the pandemic but has since been able to get his finances relatively back in order. He expected to be able to pay his back rent by the end of the month.
Prior to talking with the Charlottesville DSA on Thursday, Perry said he was not aware of the CDC moratorium.
According to Brenda Castañeda, legal director with the Legal Aid Justice Center, if tenants show up to unlawful detention or eviction hearings, they can make use of the CDC moratorium.
The CDC moratorium, which lasts until Dec. 31, will send a letter to the landlord saying COVID-19 has affected income and the tenant promises to try to access government assistance and pay as much as they can.
According to Castañeda, Charlottesville General District Court heard its first case involving a CDC letter this week. Judge Andrew Sneathern did not dismiss the case, instead continuing it to November.
“For both the 60-day extension and for the CDC moratorium, tenants must be aware of their rights and show up to assert them,” Castañeda said. “If they don’t show up, or don’t know to assert their rights, then they will still be evicted.”
Tenants also can claim a 60-day extension from the state as part of HB 340, a piece of legislation passed by the General Assembly this year.
However, HB 340 only applies if people have lost income due to COVID-19 and the tenants must show up with “written evidence” of that. According to Castañeda, written proof can include a paystub showing reduced wages, a letter from an employer, or an affidavit, models for which can be found on VPLC.org.
“I think the main takeaway is that none of these protections are automatic,” Castañeda said. “They can ask for a 60-day extension from the judge if sued, but need to show up with some kind of written proof.”
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of Virginia opted not to extend the moratorium on eviction proceedings as Gov. Ralph Northam had sought, citing slow progress on housing relief in the General Assembly’s special session, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The justices extended the judicial emergency until Oct. 11, but not the moratorium.
The Legal Aid Justice Center’s efforts to assist tenants has not been limited to eviction moratoriums.
Earlier this month, Legal Aid, Charlottesville law firm MichieHamlett and the Legal Aid Society of Roanoke Valley filed a class-action federal lawsuit on behalf of tenants throughout the commonwealth against the Hampton-based Senex Law P.C., alleging abusive and unfair debt collection practices in violation of federal law.
According to a joint news release, Senex Law is a debt collection mill representing landlords across Virginia and has a starring role in the state’s mass evictions.
Landlords throughout Virginia use Senex Law to prepare and send notices to tenants when they’re late on rent payment. Per the release, Senex charges the tenant for attorney fees with each notice, “raking big profits off the backs of those most in need.”
“The amounts being charged as attorney’s fees are not reasonable, and the notices greatly overstate the level of attorney involvement,” the complaint reads. “Upon information and belief, Senex churns out hundreds or thousands of these notices each month in a window of just a few days, with a representation of attorney involvement when in fact there has been no meaningful attorney review of the underlying claims.”
Because Senex is functioning as a debt collector, the lawsuit argues it must provide specific information required by federal law to prevent abusive and unfair debt collection practices, including information that tenants have the right to have 30 days to verify that the amount billed is accurate. The lawsuit alleges that Senex Law ignores the law by “attempting to hide behind landlords, disguising its true role in the profit scheme, and eagerly collecting their fees.”
No hearings have been set yet and Senex has yet to file a response. A request for comment from Senex was not immediately returned Thursday night.