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New year holds slimmer housing protections for Virginians

Throughout the pandemic, advocates and experts have warned of an eviction crisis, which has largely been avoided due to a patchwork of eviction protections. But, with federal protections set to expire at year's end, tenants may lose their housing. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The CDC has outlined that housing stability can effectively slow the spread of COVID-19. And since September, the federal agency has banned evictions for people who have lost income during the pandemic. But this protection expires at the end of the year.  Advocates say, when that happens, measures keeping Virginians from losing their homes will be scarce.

Christie Marra, director of housing advocacy with the Virginia Poverty Law Center, said remaining protections for tenants include more time to pay back missed rent. 

“So if they had the money somehow, and just like forgot to pay, which I know no one is in that situation right now,” Marra said. “But for that rare single person who's in that situation, he now has 14 days to pay.”

But most importantly, according to Marra, is that when landlords first notify renters of missed payment, they also have to provide information about the state’s rental assistance program — and how to apply.

“Landlords are obligated under the budget language to apply for rental assistance through the Virginia rent and mortgage relief program on behalf of their tenants. As long as the tenants don't communicate to the landlord that they have already applied, or that they're going to apply,” Marra said. “We are advising tenants to ask their landlord to apply on their behalf.” 

She said that’s because the system for landlords is much more streamlined. 

“The [Department of Housing and Community Development] is transitioning to a new system for tenant applications. The current system, which relied on 30 local agencies to review applications and approve them, was very backed up,” Marra said. “The landlords have had their own portal that has been running much more smoothly, and payments were being made much more quickly.” 

She added that landlords who rent out four or more units have to offer tenants a payment plan, which would allow them six months or until the end of a lease to pay the missing month's rent in equal installments. And for residents of subsidized housing at risk of losing their homes, landlords have to also include the statewide legal aid telephone number and website in their notices. 

Marra said the pandemic has highlighted the crucial need for stable housing. 

“This recognition that housing is important, that housing is essential and that housing is a human necessity, not a business or a commodity. And people really get that now.”

This has galvanized a push for lawmakers to implement housing protections at the upcoming General Assembly session. One proposal aims to improve tenants’ rights.

Marra said some landlords avoid the judicial eviction process entirely. Instead, they just give tenants a certain number of days to vacate a rental property. She adds that, currently, people at risk of losing their homes don’t have much recourse except to file a petition with the courts. 

“We're hearing a lot of courts around the Commonwealth that are making people who have been unlawfully locked out of their home, wait weeks before they even get a hearing,” Marra said.  “These are slumlords, these are not professional landlords. And I'm really hopeful that the professional landlord groups will want to work with us to support this bill that will hold everyone to the highest standard.”

The bill will be introduced by Del. Sally Hudson (D-Charlottesville) and Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria). 

Another bill that Del. Marcia Price (D-Newport News) and Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-Herndon) plan to introduce will also aim to help tenants stay in their homes if they pay outstanding rent and fees two days before a scheduled eviction. 

Right now, even if tenants can find the money to pay back rent, it doesn’t guarantee their shelter — that’s up to the landlords’ discretion. 

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