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Bills Tackling Evictions in Virginia General Assembly Get Broad Support

It’s been smooth sailing this year for legislation aimed at curbing evictions in Virginia. A package of bills has already passed both chambers of the General Assembly, and there might be some new money for affordable housing.

The topic took center stage in Virginia last year after a New York Times article highlighted the disproportionate number of evictions in the Commonwealth. Five Virginia cities made the top 10 for highest rate of eviction judgements in 2016.

There’s a lot of discussion about how accurate those figures are. Some say...they’re low because they don’t include people moving out before they’re formally evicted. Others, like Senator Mamie Locke (D-Hampton), said some local governments questioned whether it was too high.

“The Sheriff’s office were the ones that would normally deliver these eviction notices. They would say most of the times by the time we would get to somebody’s house, the person would pay the rent. It’s all over. It’s done with,” Locke said. “But those were some of the things that were being counted.”

Locke introduced legislation to collect data from the court system on evictions.

The Supreme Court of Virginia initially pushed back, saying that would be too expensive and labor intensive, but Locke said lawmakers are providing funding for additional law clerks to help with the workload.

“At the end of the day the most important thing that’s needed here is the information that will lead to more solid policy,’ she said.

The Virginia Housing Commission will recommend policy changes based on the data that’s collected over a three-year period.

Locke, who is a landlord herself, says the changes need to strike an important balance.

“Certainly no one wants to evict a tenant,” Locke said. “No one wants to put anyone out on the street. How can we ensure that we’re not contributing to the homeless population? And how can we ensure that the landlord is being treated fairly and that the tenant is being treated fairly?”

Making headway

The General Assembly has passed several bills this session to make eviction laws a little easier on tenants.  Things like requiring landlords to put leases in writing and giving people about two extra weeks to pay rent that’s past due.

One bill would make it less expensive for tenants to appeal an eviction case.

Another would allow them to recoup legal fees when they successfully bring a case against a landlord whose property is uninhabitable or unsafe.

“Those are slumlords. And we all know that,” said Christie Marra, a staff attorney with Virginia Poverty Law Center. Marra leads the Campaign To Reduce Evictions, which launched in May.

“We all want to come together and give tenants as many tools as we can to deal with that situation,” she said.

Marra and other housing advocates are still holding their breath as lawmakers finalize the budget. Still hanging in the balance: funding is for a new position to coordinate eviction diversion efforts across the state, and money to provide tenants facing eviction with legal assistance. Governor Northam’s budget added $19 million to the Virginia Housing Trust Fund, an account dedicated to affordable housing. The House and Senate have already slashed most of that funding significantly.

Yesterday, Northam urged lawmakers to make it a higher priority.

Senator Frank Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) is on the team that’s finalizing the budget.

“We’re still waiting to sit down with senators to figure our positions before we start negotiating with the House,” he said. “But we’ll see how it goes. We’re just getting started at this point. We’ll probably have a more definitive answer by Monday morning.”

Wagner said they’re working with Northam, and will likely put some of that money back in. But, they only have a week left to decide.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.