OPINION: Help for the Rest of Us 

Legal advice on financially surviving COVID-19.

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Now we know what it takes to get universal basic income, unemployment compensation large enough to live on, and a six-week delay of evictions, foreclosures, and utility cut offs. 

What it takes to get these policies, which benefit everyday Americans, is a global pandemic. 

For housing law problems, your key take-away is the 41-day delay of court proceedings. Everything in court that is nonessential and nonemergency, from March 16 through April 26, is delayed at least 41 days, whether it’s a hearing, a trial, a deadline, a debt collection or an eviction. Just add 41 days. 

This pause is essential to protect public health and allow us to continue practicing social distancing. During this pause, here are suggestions for people struggling financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We know you’re stressed because you can’t pay your bills. Understood — but this is not your fault.

Virginia courts are effectively shut down at least through April 26. That means no evictions, no debt collection lawsuits and no garnishments will be issued by courts until after that date. That gives you some breathing room. Even if you can’t pay your rent right now, your landlord can’t take you to court to evict you. And it’s illegal to put you out without going to court.

The State Corporation Commission has ordered the utilities it regulates not to cut off services to customers who can’t pay utility bills during the shutdown. So, you shouldn’t worry about your utilities being cut off now.

The federal government has ordered a moratorium on foreclosures on federally insured mortgages. So, most folks with mortgages shouldn’t worry about a foreclosure now.

Two sources of financial help possibly are available to you.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Stability Act, known as the CARES Act, will send government checks of $1,200 per person, plus $500 for each dependent child.

Expanded unemployment compensation will cover not only regular employees whose hours have been reduced or cut completely, but also the self-employed, gig workers and independent contractors.

If you’ve been laid off or had your hours cut, apply right away for unemployment compensation online at vec.virginia.gov/unemployed/online-services/apply-for-unemployment-benefits. If you are denied, contact a lawyer or seek free legal assistance from the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society at cvlas.org/apply-for-help-online.

Don’t take a high-interest loan while waiting for your unemployment compensation or your CARES checks. Predatory lenders are robo-calling like crazy to get desperate people to take out their obscene, high-interest loans.

Use your remaining funds to buy food and necessities. If you can’t do that and pay your rent and utilities, put off paying your rent and utilities until you get your unemployment compensation or your CARES checks. But don’t stiff your landlord if you can afford to pay your rent.

If you have court judgments against you, don’t put your unemployment compensation or your CARES checks into your bank account after April 26. Your creditors likely will be filing bank garnishments as soon as the courts allow them, in order to snag your money. Get it out of the bank if you have judgments.

Once you get your unemployment compensation or your CARES checks, make sure you pay your debts in the following order as a general rule.

Bring your rent or house payments up to date as quickly as possible.

Then bring your utility bills up to date. By doing these two things, your family at least will have a place to live.

Buy food and other necessities of life.

Pay your car payment if you don’t want it repossessed.

Only after you’ve done all of these things should you pay other debts.

All of this is general legal information that usually makes sense. But you may be in trouble financially and afraid of an eviction, foreclosure, garnishment or debt collection lawsuit. You may be denied unemployment compensation, Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP or food stamps, or other public benefits. If so, contact a lawyer or apply for help at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society.

Martin Wegbreit is director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society and a member of the Eviction Task Force, the Affordable Housing Trust Fund Oversight Board, the steering committee of the Campaign to Reduce Evictions, the legal advisory board of Housing Opportunities Made Equal and the Virginia State Bar’s special committee on access to legal services. 

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.



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