Virginia Landlord–Tenant Law in the Time of COVID-19
The pandemic and resulting shutdown of most economic activity has affected everyone in Virginia. Many Virginians have lost jobs and many more may still have jobs, but have lost income. This has put people in the stark position of needing to decide if they will pay their rent or put food on the table. The rental property market is now facing a challenge unlike any it has faced before.
Congress and the Federal government rarely get involved in Landlord-Tenant law with the notable exception of the Fair Housing Act and other civil rights legislation. For the most part, though, this area is left to the states. However, the Federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CARES Act (P.L. 113-136), includes Section 4024 which includes important protections for certain tenants who find themselves unable to pay rent. Intended to limit the economic and public health impacts from the pandemic, Sections 4024(b) and 4024(c) place a temporary moratorium on evictions from “covered dwellings.” This moratorium is in place for 120 days following the enacting of the CARES Act, i.e. from March 27, 2020 until July 25, 2020.
So, what is a “covered dwelling?” A rental property is covered by the CARES Act provisions if it meets certain criteria. The first is that the property participates in a Federal assistance program. This includes public housing, Section 8 rental assistance, Housing Choice Vouchers, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, or rural housing programs. The second includes properties that are subject to a “federally backed mortgage loan.” These are properties, of up to four individual units, with a residential mortgage owned or securitized by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, or those that are insured or otherwise assisted by the federal government (i.e. FHA, VA, or Department of Agriculture insured loans). The final group are those properties subject to a “federally backed multifamily mortgage loan,” applicable to rental properties with five or more rental units.
Now that we know what properties are covered, what does the CARES Act moratorium actually do? Section 4024(b) prevents landlords from initiating evictions or “charg[ing] fees, penalties, or other charges” due to the nonpayment of rent. Therefore, until July 25, your landlord cannot try to evict you or charge any fees or interest for not paying rent if your rental is a “covered dwelling” under the act.
Section 4024(c) forces applicable landlords to provide renters with at least 30 days-notice before the renter must vacate the property. The same section prevents applicable landlords from issuing a notice to vacate until July 25, 2020. This section does not stipulate any particular cause for eviction. Therefore, an applicable landlord cannot force you to vacate, arguably for any reason, until August 24, 2020.
HOWEVER, tenants are not completely off the hook. While Section 4024(b) prevents landlords from charging late fees and interest during the 120-day period, any previous fees continue to accrue interest. In other words, the fees and interest does not go away rather, tenants will not get a bill for late fees and interest until the period ends on July 25, 2020.
Evictions are heard in state courts. When the Supreme Court of Virginia declared a Judicial Emergency on March 13, courts across Virginia stopped hearing landlord-tenant cases, including evictions. The current Judicial Emergency Order expires May 17, 2020; however, the state Supreme Court may extend the Emergency again. Thus, even those eviction proceedings not covered by the CARES Act are delayed until the courts reopen; however, these cases can still be filed. Despite the CARES Act provisions and Virginia’s ongoing Judicial Emergency, both Landlords and Tenant have recourses to make the current economic shut-down less painful.
Both Unlawful Detainers and Tenants Assertions are delayed right now. Property owners and tenants should read their leases closely to see if there is any provision to break the lease without a court order. Tenants and landlords should be ready and willing to negotiate a solution. The CARES Act offers various methods of seeking financial assistance for both parties. Applicable Landlords can apply for mortgage forbearance or small business loans and grants, while tenants may apply for enhanced unemployment benefits.
To schedule your initial consultation, call 434-973-7474 or contact us online. Our offices are conveniently located in Charlottesville, Palmyra, Harrisonburg, and Staunton.
Sills O’Keefe, Esq., Associate Attorney
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