The Virginia Supreme Court building in Richmond. (Morgan Riley, CCA 3.0 via Wikimedia)

A proposed eviction-diversion program is facing strong opposition from the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia, whose representative called it “incredibly expensive window dressing.”

The remarks came Wednesday during a meeting of a sub-committee of the Virginia Housing Commission, which has spent the last six months reviewing potential legislation to address the highest-in-the-nation eviction rates in Virginia’s cities. The stance presents an unexpected roadblock to legislation that has otherwise found support among both tenant advocates and the apartment industry.

The group has reached a consensus on six potential bills, including one that would test an eviction diversion program in three cities: Richmond, Hampton and Danville.

The program would create a court-administered payment plan that would allow tenants facing eviction for nonpayment of rent to get their cases dismissed.

The final details are still being debated — including whether it would be mandatory that all eviction cases for nonpayment of rent be sent to the program, an approach favored by tenant advocates, or whether it would be left to the discretion of the judge, the approach sought by the apartment industry.

As currently drafted, either approach would require the Supreme Court to train judges involved in the program, distribute state funds and monitor the effectiveness of the program, including with the creation of an advisory committee, which would be chaired by Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons.

Brandy S. Singleton, a staff attorney in the court’s Office of the Executive Secretary, relayed Lemons’ concerns that the plan as drafted would increase the workload of already understaffed clerks’ offices and mire the court in a larger policy debate, which Singleton said would be “incredibly inappropriate.”

Singleton argued that lawmakers could achieve the same goals without putting clerks or the state Supreme Court in the middle of negotiations by simply rewriting the law to have tenants and landlords work out the payment plans themselves.

“What you have before you is something that’s unnecessarily complicated,” she said.

Christine Marra, a staff attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center, says the approach suggested by the court wouldn’t represent an improvement from the current situation.

“There’s no way to make that work without involving some third party,” she said. “Judges do that all the time now and say, ‘Why don’t you guys go out in the hallway and try to work it out.’ There’s no enforcement mechanism for that.”

Chip Dicks, representing the Virginia Association of Realtors, suggested that the advisory committee could be moved from the court system to the Housing Commission, but like Marra, he stood by the plan to have clerks administer the diversion program by receiving back-rent payments and hold them in escrow for landlords.

He said that approach would cost money in terms of staffing and that it will be up to the General Assembly to decide whether it wants to pay for it.

Advocates had hoped to roll out the diversion program statewide, but Dicks said funding constraints associated with the $200 million in unexpected Medicaid managed care payments this fiscal year led the group to scale back its ambition.

Marty Wegbreit, director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, argued that any added workload would be balanced out by other legislative proposals the group is putting forward, especially a measure that would prevent landlords from filing back-to-back eviction lawsuits each month a tenant is late on rent.

“By eliminating all those repetitive filings — that’s going to be a huge savings,” he said.

The Supreme Court also voiced opposition to a proposal that would require clerks to vacate writs of eviction that are never executed. Landlords often win eviction cases but don’t follow through with removing the tenants if they pay up before the sheriff shows up to remove them.

That’s meant tenants end up with evictions on their records that never happened, which advocates say can make it hard to find new housing. It also means it’s hard to say with any precision exactly how many tenants are actually evicted in Virginia.

Singleton argued it’s not the courts’ job to collect data.

“We do object to turning the district courts into a data-gathering entity for a special interest,” she said.

Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, who chaired the sub-committee, said collecting accurate data is worth the expense.

“Until we get our hands around what the real extent of this problem is, how are we really going to handle it?” she said. “Yes, it’s going to cost money. What doesn’t?”

In the end the sub-committee endorsed five of the proposals and recommended the diversion program to the full committee “as a concept,” as they continue to work out the details.