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‘34 States Have This Defense. We Do Not’: Virginia Bill Aims To Strengthen Renters’ Rights

row houses in neighborhood
(Photo: Crixell Mattews/VPM)

A study from Princeton University’s Eviction lab shows Virginia is home to five of the top 10 cities with the highest eviction rates in the country. Advocates say that’s in part because current housing laws are more lenient towards landlords. There’s legislation moving through the General Assembly that aims to strengthen protections for renters and improve their living conditions.

Winter Whittaker moved to Richmond about five years ago, to start a new life with her daughter and son. The apartment she was renting went into foreclosure, and she was having difficulty finding an affordable place to live — until she met her future landlord, who offered what, to her, seemed like the perfect deal. 

“A low deposit and first month's rent, which was important to me because I'm a single parent and I had to get a moving truck,” Whittaker said. 

But things went awry within the first weeks when Whittaker discovered that the house was flea-ridden. 

“My daughter had got bit-up all in her face, her neck, her underarms, all that. She was bitten up real bad,” Whittaker said. “So I was like, I can't take this. I can't let my kids suffer because I can't afford to live anywhere else.”

That was just the first of a series of maintenance problems. Whittaker said the landlord’s attitude shifted with each issue brought to his attention — this escalated to profane phone calls, racial slurs, and demanding that she and her family move out. 

“I was like, you know what, I'm going to just go to the courts and see if they have some kind of protection for me to, you know, look at the conditions that I'm living in,” Whittaker said. 

Her options were limited. She could either file to terminate her lease in the local district court, or file for what’s called a “tenant’s assertion.” This would essentially allow her to pay rent to a third party account, instead of the landlord, until a judge ruled in the dispute. But Whittaker’s landlord convinced her not to move forward with the case against him. 

“He told me that I ain't no sense in you going down there trying to do this because it's going to get bounced out,” she said. “It was just making me feel like it was a waste of my time and he was above the law. He was above what I could do as a human being living in his property.”

Christie Marra, with the Virginia Poverty Law Center, said that under current state housing law, landlords have the upper hand — and tenants looking to sue their landlords for abysmal living conditions can only do so if they’re up-to-date on rent.

“If I don't pay my rent, even if the landlord has let mold grow in my apartment or has not fixed the plumbing or a broken window, that's irrelevant. The landlord can sue me for rent. I can never raise any of those issues,” Marra said. 

But efforts are being made in the General Assembly to address these issues and hold landlords more accountable. 

Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Franklin County) has proposed a number of bills he said would make the system more just for tenants. 

“It would defer people entering the court system which can be costly and time-consuming, and create a level playing-field for those that rent properties,” Stanley said. 

One bill would let tenants use uninhabitable living conditions as a defense for non-payment of rent. 

Marra said that, if passed, this could cut the number of evictions in the state. 

“Thirty-four states have this defense. We do not have it. 32 of the 34 states that have this defense have lower eviction rates than Virginia,” Marra said. 

Another bill would allow renters with unresponsive landlords to go forward with necessary repairs and deduct them from their rents. Marra said there might be some pushback from landlords, but she’s confident the legislation will pass.

“I think people really are appreciating the fact that we need to strengthen the rights of tenants in this state,” Marra said. 

The bills will be voted on at a subcommittee hearing next week. 

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