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Northam announces new housing assistance, judges to set eviction policies

(AP) Virginia is launching a new program to help people struggling to pay their rent or mortgages amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced at a Capitol news conference June 25 that his administration is putting an initial $50 million in federal coronavirus-relief funds toward housing assistance. Starting next week, Virginians whose ability to cover housing costs has been hurt by the pandemic can apply for financial assistance.

“Virginians are facing a number of difficulties, but having a safe and stable place to call home shouldn’t be one of them,” Northam said.

He said the state will target outreach to communities of color, which he said have been disproportionately hurt by the virus.

Northam’s announcement comes as a moratorium on evictions in response to the coronavirus pandemic was lifted by the Supreme Court of Virginia, paving the way for eviction proceedings to resume after a ban was put in place in March.

Northam also said he was urging judges around the state to further extend the moratorium “as appropriate in their localities.”

In the June 25 news conference, Northam said his request would be directed to chief circuit judges. In a later tweet, Northam said he was making his request of general district chief judges.

A Northam spokesperson said June 26 that letters were going to general district chief judges. A sample letter provided by the governor’s office asks those judges to delay until July 20 docketing unlawful detainer actions and issuing writs of eviction for failure to pay rent.

Tenant advocates said thousands of families that are struggling financially because of COVID-19 could be at risk of losing their homes. They praised Northam’s decision but said more money will likely be needed.

Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement said a total of $150 million to $250 million in housing assistance may be needed through the summer.

“We applaud this initial allotment to help struggling families at a time when our state has been telling them to stay home as much as possible to avoid the spread of the virus,” said Rev. Dr. Darrell King of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Alexandria. “We look to the governor to provide the additional assistance we know will be needed.”

The governor said the state also plans to use federal funds for a one-time payment to households struggling to pay their energy bills.

Northam also expressed support for a criminal justice reform package Virginia Legislative Black Caucus presented in response to the widespread unrest over racial injustice. Lawmakers are set to return in August for a special session that was initially set to focus on state budget matters but has grown to include measures related to police violence and racial discrimination.

And Northam announced that he was ending his biweekly news conference, which began in March with the coronavirus outbreak. Virginia is set to further relax restrictions on businesses and public gatherings July 1 as the state’s metrics related around to the pandemic continue to trend in a positive direction.

The most recent figures show that Virginia has had about 60,000 cases of the virus and nearly 1,700 deaths. For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and even be fatal.

The governor urged Virginians to continue to take preventative measures in order to avoid seeing large increases in the number of cases like other states are experiencing.

“It’s really up to all of us as Virginians to be smart, to be safe and to take care of ourselves, our families and, really, to take care of others as well,” Northam said.

Updated June 26 to note conflicting statements as to which judges Northam’s request is directed.

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