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Even After Historic Housing Legislation, Evictions Likely to Soar

delegate cia price
Del. Cia Price (D-Newport News) at Wednesday's veto session. (Photo: Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch)

The Eviction Lab at Princeton University released a report on Monday, rating states’ housing policies during the pandemic. Virginia, which has 2.6 million renters, was among the lowest-ranking states. 

Emily Benfer, a professor at Columbia Law School, led Eviction Lab’s legal analysis of the scorecard. She said that while the Supreme Court of Virginia has extended its judicial emergency through May 17, during which eviction proceedings are suspended, one major concern remains — and that is landlords can still file evictions. Benfer says without additional protective measures, the state could see an influx in evictions once the pandemic is over. 

“When the moratoriums are lifted on the court process, we will see an avalanche of eviction cases that will completely overwhelm the court,” Benfer said. “Going back into these cases, tenants will require legal counsel to be able to take advantage of affirmative defenses to eviction post-COVID-19, especially with the increasing economic downfall and lost jobs and high unemployment rates.” 

Virginia doesn’t guarantee legal counsel to people facing eviction — which is another demerit on the scorecard. 

Christie Marra, director of housing advocacy at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, said legal aid societies are preparing to face five times the normal amount of eviction cases once courts reopen. Legal aid societies across Virginia were initially given funding in the state budget to hire 14 new housing attorneys. But the General Assembly put that on pause this Wednesday when it reconvened. 

“This tidal wave of eviction cases will hit at a time when we are not getting additional attorneys. Right now, we are already trying to figure out how to handle this, looking to the private bar to step up their level of pro bono commitment.”

Marra said if the state provided attorneys to tenants facing eviction, it would significantly cut the number of evictions — possibly in half. She said one factor is the stress of having to go to court, combined with the fear of losing your home. 

“I once had to go to court as a defendant in a case, I had already been a lawyer for 10, 15 years and it was scary,” Marra said. “A good lawyer, like a legal aid lawyer is not going to go in and fight every case. If there isn't a legal defense, a good lawyer is going to sit down with the tenant and say, ‘OK, let's come up with a reasonable payment plan to offer.’”

According to the scorecard, Virginia doesn’t have any high-impact policies in place, which include: a rent freeze that extends beyond the emergency period; no late-rent fees; and no report to credit bureaus as a result of nonpayment. 

The state legislature did, however, pass new housing protections during its one-day veto session — including capped late-rent fees and some measures delaying evictions for renters and homeowners experiencing a loss of income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

One of the two bills, sponsored by Del. Cia Price (D-Newport News), gives renters a 60-day grace period to catch up on their missed rent before having to face eviction proceedings. Homeowners and landlords get 30 days before they’re faced with foreclosure proceedings. An important deadline to note is that qualifying Virginians have up-to 90 days following the emergency period to request such a delay from the courts.

“It's overwhelming, I think, the amount of things that will need to be done in order to help keep people in their homes,” Price said. “But I also want to reiterate that if we had been doing better prior to the pandemic, we would not be in such a dire need of extreme changes to our policies.”

The second bill, carried by Del. Jeff Bourne (D-Richmond), caps late-rent fees at either 10% of a tenant’s monthly rent or the amount they owe their landlord. Before this, there was no limit to what landlords could tack-on.

The measures will be effective immediately once Gov. Ralph Northam signs them into law. 

Lawmakers couldn’t introduce new legislation on Wednesday, but Price said they may be able to during a COVID-19-related special session that’s expected to be scheduled in a few months. Until then, she’s urging Virginians to reach out to their representatives to make their voices heard. 

“Change is going to have to be created by the very people that are experiencing the situations that need to be fixed,” Price said. “And that is the violence of poverty. The people that are experiencing the hardship are going to be the ones that have to initiate some work in order to get the changes they need.”

Price said even if lawmakers can propose new bills at the special session, it’s unlikely that Virginians will see a rent moratorium. But topics on the table include funding for legal aid attorneys and the affordable housing trust fund. Funding for these measures was temporarily frozen during yesterday's veto session.

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