/ Blog Post
By Laura Wright, 2019 Equal Justice Works Fellow hosted by Virginia Poverty Law Center
When the pandemic hit, Julia* was living in a mobile home in rural Central Virginia, where she provided part-time care for her elderly mother and infant grandchild. Julia suddenly found herself without work and struggled to make ends meet. A few days after failing to make rent, her landlord showed up at her home and threw a sloppily written eviction notice at her. Her landlord then shut off her water and padlocked the water meter. Without access to water, Julia was unable to take basic health precautions to avoid getting herself, her elderly mother, and infant grandchild sick. Her landlord showed up every day for the next three days to harass her and demand rent payment. At one point, he threatened to set fire to her truck, which, as a delivery driver, is her sole means of income. She was so scared that he would show up unannounced that she spent an entire sleepless night in the truck.
Unfortunately, Julia’s story is not unique. During the pandemic, hundreds if not thousands of tenants across Virginia have experienced similar attempts by landlords to threaten, harass, and intimidate tenants to move out despite, and often in a blatant disregard for, COVID-19 protections in place. Tenants who do not know about the protections or do not have the organizing or legal support to give them confidence to assert their rights are still being evicted in the middle of pandemic, even if they qualify for eviction protections.
When I spoke to Julia the following day, she was run ragged with nerves. I was able to inform her of her rights, walk her through the steps to file a “Tenant’s Petition for Relief from Unlawful Exclusion” once the courts opened back up, and instruct her on what to do should if the landlord show up again. Sure enough, the landlord did return to her home over the weekend to harass her and demand payment. This time, she felt confident to stand up for herself and demanded that he leave. She then called the police, and with me on the phone to help explain the situation, the landlord reluctantly reconnected her water.
Julia’s experience highlights the difference an attorney can make in a tenant’s livelihood and how the need for guaranteed legal representation in eviction cases has only become more urgent with the COVID-19 pandemic. The quickly shifting landscape of tenant protections, many of which are temporary and all of which require specific action on the part of the tenant, are confusing to navigate and even more difficult to enforce without counsel. The inconsistent enforcement of COVID-19 eviction protections has demonstrated that a right is only as good as your ability to enforce it.
The inconsistent enforcement of COVID-19 eviction protections has demonstrated that a right is only as good as your ability to enforce it.
Without the assistance of an attorney, Julia would not have known about the eviction protections and legal recourse available to her and would have continued to face harassment from her landlord. Because an attorney intervened and helped Julia to assert her rights, Julia’s situation resolved without ever appearing in court. It will take time for Julia to get back on her feet, but for now, she has secured a safe place to live, free of that landlord’s threats.
We have yet to see the full economic fall-out from the COVID-19 pandemic. If past disasters are any indication, families will continue to struggle financially and experience disruptive displacement for years to come. The way forward requires policies directed at keeping people housed, as well as deep investment in legal representation for tenants at risk of eviction and for homeowners on the brink of losing their home.
The way forward requires policies directed at keeping people housed, as well as deep investment in legal representation for tenants at risk of eviction and for homeowners on the brink of losing their home.
*Name changed to protect privacy of the client
Visit here to read more stories about the work of our Fellows and how they are keeping thousands of Richmond residents safely in their homes during the pandemic.
The Housing Justice Program is funded by The JPB Foundation and Equal Justice Works.