Gov northam press briefing -- sharp

Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a news briefing earlier this month on his administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As thousands of Virginians face the prospect of losing their homes during a pandemic, faith leaders are calling on Gov. Ralph Northam to halt thousands of evictions that are becoming more likely because housing assistance programs have been slow to start.  

Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement, or VOICE, addressed the looming eviction crisis Friday and asked that Northam issue an executive order to temporarily halt eviction hearings until the state’s housing assistance program can be fully implemented. 

The Rev. Keith Savage, VOICE co-chair and senior servant of First Baptist Church Manassas, said more time is needed to inform people at risk of not being able to make rent and mortgage payments about the various programs. Savage said bold action is needed from the governor to “address this eviction tsunami.” 

“We need to allow time for better communication and outreach to address the barriers that exist, including a lack of staff and partner agencies,” Savage said. “We need time to get this right.” 

In Fauquier County, 37 eviction hearings were scheduled for July. Most of them were heard earlier in the month, but more than 10 have been scheduled for the final weeks of July. Fauquier County does not have a local housing assistance program for those impacted by the pandemic.  

Supervisor Rick Gerhardt, R-Cedar Run, said using Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding to adopt such a housing assistance program was not considered by the board of supervisors. But Gerhardt said he would support it if it is an allowable use. 

In Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park, more than 400 eviction hearings have been scheduled for the month of July. Local governments in all three locales have set up individual rent, mortgage and utility relief programs using CARES Act funds to help people struggling to make their payments because of the pandemic, which has left thousands of area residents out of work. 

The Prince William Board of County Supervisors allocated $8 million in CARES Act aid for housing assistance. But as of last Friday, only five households in Prince William have received funding from the housing assistance program out of a total 602 households that have applied for grants, according to the county’s Housing and Community Development Director Bill Lake. 

Lake said the housing department is hiring three new staff members in August to help process the influx in applications. 

Northam announced the Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program on June 29, the day the state Supreme Court let the eviction moratorium expire. The state program aims to provide $50 million in aid to households facing eviction or foreclosure as a result of the pandemic.  

The Rev. Kristen McBrayer, of Emmaus United Church of Christ in Vienna, said that up to 58% of those facing eviction will “self-evict" because they fear what an eviction on their credit report will do to their chances of renting again. “The fear of eviction, without a moratorium that is very bold and clear, drives people from their homes,” McBrayer said. 

VOICE leaders said Northam has the ability to temporarily halt evictions using an executive order. They cited the governor’s powers under a July 15 advisory opinion from Attorney General Mark Herring, which states that the branches of Virginia government, including the executive branch, “each possess tools that, depending on the facts and circumstances, may be used to aid those facing eviction.”  

Herring wrote that the governor has statutory and executive authority to issue emergency orders, but “whether any particular executive order is an appropriate exercise of emergency power depends on the scope of the executive order and the facts and circumstances.” 

Northam’s office did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.  

Coy Ferrell contributed to this report. Reach Daniel Berti at dberti@fauquier.com 

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