This story was published between issues of the newspaper. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes.
Originally published May 27, 2020, to the Virginia Defenders Facebook page.
By Phil Wilayto
RICHMOND, Va. — Dozens of housing activists gathered in downtown Richmond May 26 to protest the resumption of eviction cases by the city’s housing courts.
Honking horns and displaying anti-eviction signs, more than 30 vehicles formed a “car rally” that set off from outside the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School on Lombardy Street, wound its way through several residential neighborhoods and finished by circling the John Marshall Courts Building near City Hall, where eviction cases are being heard for the first time in more than two months.
Meanwhile, a small group of activists stationed themselves outside the Courts Building, wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Stop Eviction” and engaging people headed into the courthouse.
“Our purpose in being at the courthouse was to advocate and educate and visibly hold the space,” explained Samim Khizr Mikal Tyger, 35, one of the protest organizers, who uses the pronouns they/them. “And the car rally was, as publicly as possible, to protest the evictions and collections.”
In addition to eviction cases, the courts were also resuming hearing cases involving nonpayment of utility bills.
With most city businesses closed because of the coronavirus, many workers are now without jobs. Unemployment claims are backed up, and the one-time stimulus check – $1,200 for most individuals – was based on a month’s work at the federal minimum wage of $7.25, hardly enough to cover rent or mortgage payments, utilities, food, medical bills, insurance, child care and all the other monthly expenses.
In mid-March, the Supreme Court of Virginia responded to the coronavirus pandemic by declaring a judicial emergency and suspending all non-essential, non-emergency proceedings. That included new eviction cases and cases involving nonpayment of utilities. Court-ordered evictions are carried out by deputies from local sheriff’s departments. On March 20, Richmond Sheriff Antoinette Irving decided that, because of the health risks to both tenants and deputies, “we would not do any more evictions until further notice.”
During the courthouse protest, sheriff’s deputies, who are responsible for courthouse security, initially told the activists they could gather outside the doors of the Courts Building, but later moved them to the open plaza area closer to 9th Street. At one point, Tyger tried to enter the building to check on their own pending eviction case, but says they were stopped by one of the deputies. Tyger said they plan to try again on May 28, accompanied by an attorney from the Virginia Poverty Law Center.
According to the City of Richmond’s website, “Among large U.S. cities, Richmond has the 2nd highest eviction rate in the country at 11.44%. This is three to four times the national average, and has remained steady over the past 16 years. A total of 30.9% of all Richmond renters receive a notice of eviction in any given year. Court eviction affects about 40,000 people in Richmond who are subject to the 17,981 eviction lawsuits filed annually in the City (2017 statistics.)”