Among fixes to reduce evictions: more pro-bono lawyers, plain-English legal forms and poverty simulation for judges

By: - October 5, 2018 6:09 am
VCU Professor Kathryn Howell, who co-founded the RVA Eviction Lab, presented research on the link between evictions and instability in public schools in Richmond during a recent meeting of the statewide Campaign to Reduce Evictions.

VCU Professor Kathryn Howell, who co-founded the RVA Eviction Lab, presented research on the link between evictions and instability in public schools in Richmond during a meeting last year of the statewide Campaign to Reduce Evictions.

When it comes to doing something about the highest-in-the-nation eviction rates in Virginia’s cities, advocates say there’s no silver bullet.

Instead, they’re pursuing dozens of possible policy fixes.

Some would require legislative action and possibly state funding, such as a proposed eviction diversion program.

Others would not. Among them is a proposal for district court judges around the state to participate in a poverty simulation program to help them better understand the challenges facing the defendants who come before them.

“The idea is judges might view cases, especially where people are losing the roof over their heads, through a little bit of a different lens if they had a better understanding of what people are facing in poverty,” says Mark Braley, the executive director of Legal Services Corporation of Virginia, which funds and oversees legal aid programs in the state.

Braley said there are number of programs out there, but they are essentially half day to day-long programs in which participants are given a persona, say, a single mother with kids, along with a budget and tasks to complete.

He said the programs help people “understand what it means if you tell a poor person they need to report to this place 10 miles from their home on such and such a date at such and such a time, to understand what they might have to go through just to get there and how much time it will take them.

“That might seem inconsequential, but people don’t seem to understand how much time it takes for our clients just to shop for groceries and get them back home.”

Other ideas broached by the statewide Campaign to Reduce Evictions since Princeton University’s Eviction Lab highlighted the state’s high eviction rates earlier this year include:

  • Create a statewide eviction help line, which would connect tenants facing eviction with resources.
  • Distribute a one-page explanation about the eviction process for sheriffs to provide tenants when they serve eviction lawsuits.
  • Establish a new statewide pro bono housing law program to provide same-day legal assistance and representation when they appear in court.

Currently, very few tenants are represented by lawyers when they appear in court for eviction lawsuits. In many cases, they’re confused by the process. During one session in Richmond General District Court earlier this year, several tenants appeared to believe that their landlord’s attorney was representing them.

“We know from studies that having an attorney changes the outcome for a tenant pretty significantly,” said Christie Marra, an attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center who is leading the statewide campaign.

On the legislative side, Marra and other tenant advocates have been working with landlords and representatives of the apartment industry on potential legislation that could be introduced during the coming session of the General Assembly.

Some proposals have found easy support, including one to require residential leases be drawn out in writing and another to direct the courts system to make its legal forms simpler to understand.

In the latter case, advocates take issue with the fact that the eviction paperwork filled out by landlords and later served on tenants are labeled “Summons for Unlawful Detainer,” which is not exactly intuitive.

“It’s extremely difficult for them to understand and frankly frightening, they get a ‘Summons for Unlawful Detainer,’ they think they’re going to jail,” Marra said.

During a meeting late last month of the Virginia Housing Commission’s eviction work group, there also appeared to be tentative support among landlords for a proposal to require them to amend existing eviction lawsuits rather than file new lawsuits against the tenant each month they’re late, a practice advocates say would prevent additional court fees from piling up unnecessarily.

Drawing pushback from landlords was a proposal to increase the number of times a tenant can head off an eviction by paying rent before their court date. Under current state law, tenants can exercise what’s called a “right of redemption” once per calendar year. Advocates want that number increased to four.

“I think that’s a little excessive because now you’re enabling habitual behavior,” said Ivan Jecklin, co-president of Weinstein Properties, one of the largest apartment owners in the state. He called late payments disruptive. “We have a business interest in having people in our apartment who are not habitually late.”

Martin Wegbreit, the director of litigation at Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, told Jecklin all it takes “is one bad day” to fall behind on rent.

Jecklin responded: “I think I would tell you, if you’re having four bad days a year you should probably be in an apartment that has less rent because you can’t afford it.”

Finally, there’s general support for the creation of a statewide eviction diversion program that would draw from a pool of money to help tenants pay rent in exchange for landlords agreeing to drop the eviction proceedings.

Two big questions that are outstanding, though, are where the money would come from and whether it would be mandatory for landlords to participate.

Advocates support mandatory participation and say Virginia would be the first state to have such a program. Landlords said they needed more specifics about how a diversion program would be structured and administered before signing on.

The Housing Commission’s eviction group is scheduled to meet again in early November to finalize the legislative proposals.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association. Contact him at [email protected]