When four people facing deportation arrived at a Virginia Beach courthouse in early August, they never had to appear before a judge, a process that for many can be stressful and humiliating.
Instead, a lawyer representing the landlords told them their housing issues were being resolved: each tenant had either caught up on their rent or had qualified for a renter’s rental assistance program. billion dollars from Virginia.
“For the most part, landlords and tenants work together to get the rent paid,” said attorney, Michael Hipps.
The scene contradicted the image of a state which, until a few years ago, was considered a civic embarrassment for its staggering rate of evictions. Five of Virginia’s cities made it into the nation’s top 10, according to a 2018 report from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.
Three years later, Virginia is offering enhanced protections and assistance to tenants whose lives have been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. The state has even become a national leader in distributing federal rent assistance dollars, while evictions have plummeted.
This is in part thanks to the glaring spotlight of Princeton’s data, which appeared in The New York Times. The junk advertising has put lawmakers, housing advocates and homeowner groups on a path that began long before the virus spread.
“It was very embarrassing to be on the national news for something so terrible,” Del said. Marcia Price, a Democrat with Newport News, who was ranked fourth nationally for evictions.
“I don’t mean to say the conversations started with this, but it certainly helped amplify the work and the voices of those who spoke out,” said Price, who drafted the eviction legislation. “Everyone knew something had to be done.
Lawmakers have drawn attention to possible solutions, many of which came to fruition during the pandemic.
For example, the state temporarily requires landlords to give tenants 14 days instead of five to make late rent payments before landlords can apply for eviction. Overtime is crucial for people who get paid every two weeks, housing advocates say. Some lawmakers hope to make the provision permanent.
Virginia was also one of the first states to create a statewide rent relief program using federal coronavirus relief money.
From January through May, Virginia distributed more dollars than any other state in the first round of the emergency rental assistance program, according to figures from the US Treasury. At the end of June, Virginia was second behind Texas.
Virginia also distributed a higher percentage of these ERA funds – around 43% – than any other state, according to the office of US Senator Tim Kaine.
By the end of July, Virginia had spent more than $ 335 million in rent assistance funds and helped more than 51,000 households, according to state figures.
Behind that large percentage was a state requirement that landlords must notify tenants about the money and apply for it on their behalf, said Christine Marra, director of housing advocacy at the Virginia Policy Law Center.
“This, more than anything, kept the tenants housed,” Marra said.
The mandate expired on June 30. But he was reinstated last week. Virginia is also funding a campaign to educate tenants about the money and help them apply for it.
Taneka Calloway, a caregiver from Norfolk, was among those who received help.
Due to the pandemic, she lost work visiting clients. Her daughter also suffered from a brain tumor, while her father had COVID-19.
“They emailed me saying I had been approved for $ 10,000 to cover the months of February at the end of my lease,” Calloway told The Associated Press in late June.
Tiara Burton said the state relief program was helping her as well.
Burton works as a customer service agent for a health insurance company. She lost her second nanny job with the pandemic, had an accident and started falling behind on rent.
Fearing eviction, Burton attended an Aug. 2 hearing in Virginia Beach, only to be informed by her landlord’s attorney that the aid had been approved.
Virginia’s efforts, combined with a federal moratorium on evictions, have helped reduce evictions, housing advocates say.
While post-pandemic housing demand and low supply have caused prices to skyrocket, not everyone is reaping the benefits. Millions of landlords have gone into forbearance and many tenants struggle to pay their rent as eviction protections begin to expire this summer. It’s a “race” to push through more relief measures, says Chris Herbert of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.
In the first quarter of 2021, eviction requests were 22% of what they were before the pandemic, according to the RVA Eviction Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Second quarter deposits were similar. But they are expected to rise as more data arrives, indicating “the growing risk of eviction” for thousands of households, the lab said.
The increase in deposits may have been the result of landlords anticipating the expiration of some tenant protections as COVID-19 cases declined in the spring, said Marra, of the Virginia Poverty Law Center.
But Patrick McCloud, CEO of the Virginia Apartment Management Association, cited other possible reasons. For example, some tenants have refused to cooperate with landlords to seek help, he said.
McCloud rejected the Princeton report, saying it counted court orders – not actual evictions – and therefore was not accurate. But he agrees that this has spawned a change.
He credits Virginia’s rent relief program for keeping many tenants in their homes. And he said the industry supports its continuation after federal relief funds are depleted.
But despite its best efforts, Virginia still lags behind many other states when it comes to tenant protection, said Eric Dunn, director of litigation for the National Housing Law Project.
For example, Washington state requires homeowners to have good reasons to evict someone, he said. And that person has the right to a lawyer.
“They’re sort of in the middle of the pack now,” Dunn said of Virginia.
Kathryn Howell, co-director of the RVA Eviction Lab, said the real challenges lie ahead. This includes tackling more structural issues such as affordable housing and inequalities. Black women, for example, are disproportionately deported.
“The fruit at hand is what we made,” Howell said. “It’s a step in the right direction. The next step is more difficult.