Gov. Ralph Northam during an August 2020 press conference VM

Gov. Ralph Northam at a news conference in August.

Courtesy Virginia Mercury

Gov. Ralph Northam signed a revised state budget this week that restricts evictions and prohibits utilities from cutting off power, water and gas through the end of the state of emergency.

“This budget will help keep people in their homes with their lights on and their water running,” Northam said.

The new rules went into effect immediately.

The eviction protections are phased. Through the end of the year, landlords are now required to serve tenants who don’t pay their rent with a written notice informing them of state and local rent relief programs, which cover back rent. A landlord is allowed to proceed with an eviction only if the tenant refuses to apply or cooperate with a landlord’s effort to apply on their behalf.

The rule goes further than the current national moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control, which expires at the end of the year and required tenants to know their rights and actively contest efforts to evict them.

The new state restrictions loosen beginning Jan. 1, at which point landlords would still be required to notify tenants about rent relief programs, but would be allowed to proceed with an eviction if the tenant is denied aid, the programs runs out of money, or it takes the state or longer than 45 days to make a payment.

During both phases, landlords who own more than four rental units are also required to offer to enter into a payment plan if the tenant provides a signed statement certifying hardship due to the pandemic.

Northam’s approval of the budget also re-establishes and expands the prior ban on utilities disconnecting service from customers due to nonpayment of bills related to COVID-19.

Previous orders from the State Corporation Commission establishing a disconnection moratorium were limited to companies like Dominion Energy and Columbia Gas but did not apply to utilities run by local and regional governments. Northam’s budget extends the prohibition to such municipal utilities, which previously had argued that their narrower operating margins meant a ban could undermine their financial integrity.

The budget does allow for cutoffs if unpaid bills begin to threaten a utility’s solvency, but they would have to petition the state to receive an exemption.

The new ban will remain in place until “economic and public health conditions have improved such that the prohibition does not need to be in place, or until at least 60 days after such declared state of emergency ends, whichever is sooner.”

Utilities will further be required to offer repayment plans to customers who are more than 30 days behind on their bills. Northam’s budget includes $100 million earmarked for direct utility assistance to customers with overdue bills.

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