Deputies from the Henrico County Sheriff's Department process an eviction on July 12, 2018. The tenants had already departed and the deputies, after checking the unit to make sure it's empty, watch as the owner changes the unit's locks.

Months of talks between landlord groups and tenant advocates have yielded a broad agreement to test an eviction diversion program in a bid to tamp down highest-in-the-nation eviction rates in Virginia cities, though exactly how far it will go is still under discussion.

As currently contemplated, the program would give tenants facing an eviction lawsuit stemming from nonpayment of rent the opportunity to set up a payment plan with the court and avoid being immediately removed from their homes.

The biggest outstanding question is whether the program will be automatically available to all tenants or only at the discretion of the district court judge hearing the eviction lawsuit. But in either scenario, the landlord would be required to participate.

If the program is eventually implemented statewide, it would be the first of its kind in the nation, said members of the Virginia Housing Commission, which established an eviction workgroup earlier this year to bring together landlord and tenant groups to explore potential legislation.

Where exactly the program would be tested has not yet been determined, but it would likely be in one of several of the handful of Virginia cities that Princeton University’s Eviction Lab found have the highest eviction rates in the country, said Laura Lafayette, the CEO of the Richmond Association of Realtors, who chaired the state workgroup.

She said the details will be finalized in the coming months and then drafted into legislation that can be introduced during the General Assembly session that begins Jan. 9.

Other outstanding questions include how long the tenant would have to pay back the rent and how much a tenant can owe before they no longer qualify for the program, Lafayette said. As discussed last week, tenants would be given four months to pay back the late rent.

“I don’t think we resolved that yet, but there’s enough shared desire to move toward some kind of diversion program, I don’t think that number is going to be a deal killer here,” she said.

The approach differs from evictio- diversion programs tested in other states insofar as it does not include a financial aid component, in which state social services funds are used to help tenants pay rent. It also doesn’t provide tenants access to lawyers for legal advice. Both are methods that have seen success in courts in Michigan.

Instead it formalizes a process that frequently takes place in Virginia courtrooms already. Judges frequently urge landlords and tenants to work out an agreement or payment plan prior to issuing an eviction order.

But advocates nonetheless called it an important step.

“It’s the difference between depending on the kindness of the landlord and having the right to stay,” said Christie Marra, a lawyer with the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

Other legislation is also likely to come out of the group. One piece would instruct the state courts to rewrite eviction notices in plain English and simplify the forms. The court took a small step in that direction on their own last month when they tweaked language on forms used around the state. Another proposed reform would increase the amount of time tenants have to pay their rent before they can be evicted.

Advocates are also working on legislation and programs outside the Housing Commission they hope to get passed during the coming session, including a measure that would no longer allow landlords to evict tenants over unpaid late fees.

And they are also continuing to work on reforms outside the legislative process, securing funding for two pro-bono attorneys who would work out of courthouses in Hampton Roads and Richmond and establishing an eviction help line.