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An eviction ‘tsunami’ in Virginia could be coming after the new year, advocates warn

A Virginian-Pilot article by reporter Jonathan Edwards.

Ricky Johnson, 67, of Virginia Beach poses for a portrait outside his home at a trailer park in Virginia Beach on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020. Johnson, a Vietnam veteran, was almost evicted last week after being unable to pay rent due to COVID-19, but was able to convince a judge to halt the eviction and have United Way cover the back rent. (Hannah Ruhoff / The Virginian-Pilot)

VIRGINIA BEACH — Ricky Johnson was on the fast track to living on the streets for Thanksgiving, during the worst part of the worst pandemic in more than a century.

Johnson, a 67-year-old Vietnam vet, has lived in his mobile home for seven years and never had a problem making rent. Until the coronavirus. He still gets his Army pension and disability money, and so does Mike, his brother and roommate. But people are afraid of letting strangers into their home, so the odd jobs Ricky Johnson used to do to make ends meet, such as house repairs and renovations, have dried up. Now the Johnson brothers are $2,600 behind, and their landlord is suing to evict them.

They’re but two of thousands of Virginians facing eviction as an economy crippled by COVID-19 squeezes landlords and tenants alike. Since the spring, the state and federal governments have stepped in, giving people money to cover rent and, in some cases, blocking landlords from evicting them. Housing advocates lauded those measures but say they won’t be enough to stave off a looming eviction crisis they say would pose humanitarian, economic, and public health threats, all at once.

“The tsunami is brewing,” said Christie Marra, director of housing advocacy for the nonprofit Virginia Poverty Law Center. “We are in the middle of a pandemic that you can only be secure from if you stay home.”

Even before the pandemic, eviction rates in Virginia are among the highest in the nation, according to 2016 data released by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab in 2018. Four Hampton Roads cities — Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Chesapeake — were ranked in the top 10 in the country among large cities. Virginia Beach was No. 15. But eviction lawsuits plummeted during the pandemic when the state Supreme Court declared a “judicial emergency,” ordering non-essential, non-emergency court proceedings be postponed, according to Virginia Court Data, a private group that makes case records searc