Business & Economy

Lawmakers move forward on eviction moratorium during Covid-19 crisis

Supreme Court building
A sign on the door of the Vermont Supreme Court says that non-emergency hearings have been postponed. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

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A bill that would place a moratorium on evictions for the duration of the Covid-19 state of emergency is moving forward in the Senate. 

The bill would also restrict foreclosure evictions during the state of emergency and up to 30 days after. It would not enact rent forgiveness or a rent freeze. 

The legislation intends to buy those on the brink of losing housing more time to remain sheltered during a pandemic that, experts say, can only be contained by staying home and self-isolating.

While the bill originated in the House General and Military Affairs Committee, the Senate Economic Development Committee has continued taking testimony on the legislation this week, in an effort to expedite it to a Senate floor vote. Committee Chair Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden, said Friday that the committee would vote on it Monday. 

However, as the Senate works out the kinks in a remote voting process — which is expected to be enacted Wednesday — the bill may not come to a chamber vote until early the next week. 

While various states and counties have enacted eviction moratoriums across the country, no such order has come from the executive branch in Vermont. There has been disagreement about whether an executive order, or legislative action, is needed to suspend all evictions.

Gov. Phil Scott’s office did not return requests for comment about whether he supports the bill and why he hasn’t pursued an executive order to halt eviction proceedings. 

The Vermont Supreme Court declared a judicial emergency March 16, which suspended all non-emergency court proceedings, which largely included eviction cases.

The Superior Court in Chittenden County took that order a step further and explicitly stated that all proceedings on foreclosures and evictions would be ceased. In a statement, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said he is urging lawmakers to take similar statewide action. 

Housing advocates have warned the Supreme Court declaration doesn’t halt all parts of the eviction process across the state. Jean Murray, an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid, told lawmakers Friday that her office has identified 22 cases across the state where writ of possessions — a document served by sheriffs notifying tenants that they must leave their residence — were still in the works. 

While it may be generally understood by judges that eviction proceedings are stayed — a court-ordered suspension of a case — Murray said this doesn’t protect tenants who have been served writs of possession. 

“That doesn’t take care of the ones that are already agreed to, already pending and are coming up,” Murray said, referring to writs of possession. “This bill is needed to stay all of those across the state.”

Chris D’Elia, president of the Vermont Bankers Association, told lawmakers Friday that he doesn’t support the legislation because he doesn’t think it’s necessary. 

He said all of the institutions in his association have said they are not proceeding on any foreclosure orders during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“In today’s environment,” D’Elia said, “we are not going to throw anybody out of their homes.”

However, Angela Zaikowski, director of the Vermont Association of Landlords, said the bill strikes a balance that her organization can support. She said she thinks it provides enough support for both landlords and tenants 

Sirotkin agreed that this bill provided a compromise between the two groups that can be rare to come by. 

“We don’t always find the landlords and tenants in agreement,” Sirotkin said. “That’s part of the thing, we’re all in this together.” 

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Grace Elletson

About Grace

Grace Elletson is VTDigger's government accountability reporter, covering politics, state agencies and the Legislature. She is part of the BOLD Women's Leadership Network and a recent graduate of Ithaca College, where she was editor in chief of the Ithacan. She previously interned for the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor and The Cape Cod Times, her hometown newspaper.

Email: [email protected]

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