Measures Taken to Lower Evictions in Virginia
By Katja Timm
After issuing an executive order in Nov. 2018 to promote affordable housing, Governor Ralph Northam has recently signed off on a series of bills to help reduce eviction rates in Virginia.
In Virginia, Richmond in particular, eviction has been a growing problem throughout past years. With Richmond being a sizeable city, many students and other residents rent apartments through landlord-tenant contracts. With an average of almost 18 evictions per day, Richmond’s eviction rate is at a current 11.44%, which is +9.1 from the U.S. national average.
With Richmond being a sprawling city, with campus life from both VCU and the University of Richmond included, well over more than half of Richmond’s residents are renters who do not own permanent housing in the city. Another factor to consider is that Richmond has a predominantly African American renter population, with a high $896 per median gross rent.
To finally begin to tackle these fundamental disparities in unequal housing and eviction rates, Gov. Northam signed six bills this legislative session that accompany his executive order to combat against eviction throughout the state. These pieces of legislation should officially be in effect by July.
“From day one, we knew eviction was a problem,” said Christie Marra of Virginia Poverty Law Center. “These 6 bills that passed are a wonderful step forward for leveling the playing field.”
From working on the Campaign to Reduce Evictions, and partnering with the Virginia Housing Commission, Marra worked on the front lines to help pass these bills that would help tenants receive equitable treatment and reduce eviction rates throughout the state of Virginia.
“What these bills do is try to provide leeway,” said Marra. “If you’re paying up to 30, 40 or 50 percent of your income for rent, there’s a high chance you’ll be late at some point for unforeseen expenses. There has been a huge increase in cost of rentals, while wages have stayed stagnant.”
The first bill in the package, House Bill 1898, modifies a tenant’s “right of redemption”. This means that originally, a tenant in Virginia had two days to be notified before they were to be evicted. This new law signed will extend that period of time to two weeks for a writ of eviction to be delivered.
Another bill passed in the package aims at implementing a limit to the amount of filing fees that can be placed on a tenant within a certain time frame. This bill “provides that if an initial hearing on a summons for unlawful detainer cannot be held within 21 days from the date of filing, it shall be held as soon as practicable, but not later than 30 days after the date of the filing,” according to Virginia’s Legislative Information System.
Additionally, one of the most surprising bills included in the package states that it is now required in Virginia to have a written lease conjured by the landlord and agreed to by the tenant. “Most people don’t know that it is actually not a law to have a written lease in Virginia,” said Marra. “This happens a lot, especially in rural areas in Virginia.”
One critical addition to Northam’s plan, as mentioned by Marra, is the legislation recently signed to implement the Eviction Diversion Pilot Program. This program extends to four eviction-prone localities in Virginia – Richmond, Petersburg, Hampton and Danville. This program is for tenants who are not chronically late on rent, according to Marra. She said it diverts eligible tenants into a payment plan, and if their debts are paid off, their case is dismissed. The program is set to be in effect by July 2020.
“Virginia localities have some of the highest rates of evictions in the nation, yet there are clear gaps in our ability to obtain tangible data and fully address this crisis in our Commonwealth,” said Governor Northam. “My administration remains focused on increasing access to quality, affordable housing and this pilot program will assist the state in developing stronger methods for preventing evictions and expanding important protections for all renters in Virginia.”
In a press release released by Northam’s team on Feb. 28th, the governor said that many areas of Virginia have the highest eviction rates in the country.
Eviction Lab of Princeton University, a website created from a team of researchers, students and website architects who “believe that a stable, affordable home is central to human flourishing and economic mobility,” conducted research on the top evicting large cities in the United States.
Their findings concluded that in the top six cities that have the highest eviction rates, four of them include cities in Virginia. The number two most evicted city is Richmond, number three is Hampton, number four is Newport News, and number six is Norfolk.
“Increasing the quality, availability, and affordability of housing in our Commonwealth is critical to ensuring that all Virginians have an equal opportunity to lead healthy and productive lives,” said Governor Northam. “These measures establish important consumer protections, help to improve housing stability for vulnerable populations, and represent a fundamental step forward in addressing Virginia’s disproportionately high eviction rates.”