Shame put Virginia on course to stronger tenant protections

FILE - In this Monday Aug. 2, 2021, file photo, Tiara Burton stands outside a courthouse in Virginia Beach, Va. Burton was facing eviction proceedings over unpaid rent but said that she was able to work things out with her landlord. An attorney representing her landlord told her that she had been approved for assistance through the Virginia Rent Relief Program and that her court hearing was postponed for 30 days. Virginia was recently considered a civic embarrassment for its staggering rate of evictions. But its now offering stronger protections and assistance to tenants whose lives have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Ben Finley, File) (Ben Finley)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – When four people facing eviction arrived at a Virginia Beach courthouse in early August, they never had to stand before a judge, a process that for many can be stressful and humiliating.

Instead, an attorney representing landlords told them their housing woes were being resolved: each tenant had either caught up on rent or qualified for Virginia’s $1 billion rental assistance program.

“For the most part, landlords and tenants are working together to get the rent paid,” said the attorney, Michael Hipps.

The scene contradicted the image of a state that, up until a few years ago, was considered a civic embarrassment for its staggering rate of evictions. Five of Virginia’s cities ranked in the national top 10, according to a 2018 report from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.

Three years later, Virginia is offering stronger protections and assistance to tenants whose lives have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic. The state has even become a national leader in distributing federal rental assistance dollars, while evictions have fallen.

It’s thanks in part to the glaring spotlight of Princeton’s data, which appeared in The New York Times. The unwanted publicity put lawmakers, housing advocates and landlord groups on a path that began well before the virus spread.

“It was very embarrassing to be in the national news for something so terrible,” said Del. Marcia Price, a Democrat from Newport News, which was ranked fourth nationally for evictions.

“I don’t want to say the conversations started with that, but it definitely helped amplify the work and the voices of those who were speaking up,” said Price, who has authored eviction-related legislation. “Everybody knew something had to be done.”

Lawmakers ramped up attention on possible solutions, many of which came to fruition during the pandemic.

For instance, the state is temporarily requiring landlords to give tenants 14 days instead of five to make payments on late rent before landlords can file for eviction. The extra time is crucial for people who are paid every two weeks, housing advocates say. Some lawmakers hope to make the provision permanent.

Virginia also was 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 from the first round of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, according to U.S. Treasury figures. By the end of June, Virginia ranked second only to Texas.

Virginia also distributed a higher percentage of those ERA funds — about 43% — than any other state, according to U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine’s office.

As of late July, Virginia has spent more than $335 million in rental relief funds and assisted more than 51,000 households, according to state figures.

Behind that large percentage was a state requirement that landlords tell tenants about the money and apply for it on their behalf, said Christine Marra, director of housing advocacy for the Virginia Policy Law Center.

“That, more than anything, has kept tenants housed,” Marra said.

The mandate expired June 30. But it was reinstated last week. Virginia is also funding a campaign to make tenants aware of the money and help them apply for it.

Taneka Calloway, a personal care aide from Norfolk, is among those who've received aid.

Because of the pandemic, she lost work visiting clients. Her daughter was also suffering from a brain tumor, while her dad was sick with COVID-19.

“They sent me an email saying that I was approved for $10,000 to cover the months from February into the end of my lease,” Calloway told The Associated Press in late June.

Tiara Burton said the state relief program is also helping her.

Burton works as a customer service agent for a health insurance company. She lost her second job as a nanny with the pandemic, got into an accident and started falling behind on rent.

Fearing eviction, Burton showed up at an Aug. 2 hearing in Virginia Beach, only to be told by her landlord's attorney that the aid was approved.

Virginia's efforts, combined with a federal eviction moratorium, have helped reduce evictions, housing advocates say.

During 2021's first quarter, eviction filings were at 22% of what they were during pre-pandemic levels, according to Virginia Commonwealth University’s RVA Eviction Lab.

Second-quarter filings were similar. But they're expected to rise as more data comes in, pointing to “the growing risk of eviction” for thousands of households, the lab said.

The rise in filings may have been landlords anticipating the expiration of some tenant protections as COVID-19 cases declined during spring, said Marra, of the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

But Patrick McCloud, CEO of the Virginia Apartment Management Association, cited other possible reasons. For instance, some tenants have refused to cooperate with landlords in applying for assistance, he said.

McCloud pushed back against Princeton’s report, saying it counted court orders — not actual evictions — and therefore wasn't accurate. But he agrees it spawned change.

He credits Virginia’s Rent Relief Program with keeping many renters in their homes. And he said the industry supports keeping it in place once federal relief funds run out.

But for all of its efforts, Virginia is still behind many other states on tenant protections, said Eric Dunn, director of litigation for the National Housing Law Project.

For instance, Washington state requires landlords to have good cause to evict someone, he said. And that person has a right to a lawyer.

“They’re kind 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. They include tackling more structural problems such as affordable housing and inequality. Black women, for example, are disproportionately evicted.

“The low-hanging fruit is what we’ve done,” Howell said. “It’s a step in the right direction. The next step is harder.”