LOOKING AHEAD: Will budget concerns sink eviction diversion program or will lawmakers go further?

By: - January 7, 2019 5:01 am

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.

Next in a series looking ahead to the General Assembly session that starts this week.

An unprecedented study released earlier this year by researchers at Princeton University put Virginia on blast: The state’s cities have among the highest eviction rates in the country.

In the months that followed, policy makers, tenant advocates and housing industry leaders have put together a range of policy proposals to bring those numbers down. Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam introduced a budget proposal to put $2.6 million toward legal aid for tenants facing eviction.

The discussion already represents a big shift. As recently as earlier this year, momentum had been on the side of landlords, with legislation passing to streamline eviction for some tenants.

Of course, whether the proposed reforms will make it into law remains to be seen. Some lawmakers have questioned the proposals, others have called for them to be expanded.

Here’s what we’ll be keeping an eye on when the General Assembly convenes:

Will a proposed eviction diversion program overcome funding concerns?

Representatives of the housing industry and major landlords spent the summer meeting with tenant advocates to develop a proposal for an eviction diversion program.

As unanimously endorsed by the bipartisan State Housing Commission, the program would guarantee tenants the ability to enter into a four-month payment plan with their landlord, at the conclusion of which, their case would be dismissed.

The legislation limits the program to tenants in good standing, defined as not having been late on rent more than two times in six months or three times in one year. It would also require tenants to appear in court to explain why they were late on rent and testify that they believe they’ll be able to make the payments. Tenants would only be eligible to participate in the program once every 12 months.

The state court system is tweaking eviction notices ever so slightly to get ‘eviction’ in the header. In this illustration, the old language is crossed out in red and the new placement is highlighted in yellow.

The biggest outstanding question: Will lawmakers be willing to pay for it?

The Housing Commission has already reined in its ambitions for the program. It was initially envisioned as a statewide effort but is now being introduced as a pilot program in four cities with high eviction rates: Richmond, Hampton, Danville and Petersburg.

There is no estimate yet for how much setting up the program in those four cities would cost, but it remains a concern. A representative of the state court system, who previously called the program “incredibly expensive window dressing,” told commission members that as drafted, the program would almost certainly increase workloads of clerks in offices that in some cases are already understaffed.

In hopes of overcoming that, the proposed legislation sets a July 1, 2020, start date to give lawmakers plenty of time to find the money.

“There’s no question that the money has to be found, but I think we’re giving the General Assembly some time to find that money,” said Housing Commission member Laura Lafayette, who serves as the chief executive of the Richmond Association of Realtors and chaired the commission’s subcommittee on evictions.

Technical tweaks would require written leases, make it easier for tenants to appeal

The commission also endorsed five technical tweaks to state landlord-tenant law they hope will reduce evictions.

One would require written leases.

Another would automatically vacate evictions that landlords don’t act upon, potentially improving a tenant’s credit history while also giving researchers a clearer picture of how many people are actually being evicted.

A third proposal would make it clearer how and when tenants can pay back rent before they’re evicted.

A fourth would make it easier for tenants to appeal eviction lawsuits.

A fifth would prevent landlords from filing multiple eviction lawsuits against a tenant each month they’re late, instead requiring them to consolidate the actions into the initial suit.

Northam proposes $2.6 million in legal assistance for tenants facing eviction

It amounted to a footnote in Northam’s week-long budget roadshow, in which he announced an array of high-dollar, base-pleasing spending proposals that covered everything from teacher raises to water quality.

But tucked into his proposed amendments to the final year of the state’s two-year spending plan is $2.6 million in legal assistance for tenants facing eviction.

Advocates say that amounts to one housing attorney in each of the state’s 35 legal aid offices, which provide representation to low income people in civil cases.

“That’s huge,” said Christie Marra, a lawyer with the Virginia Poverty Law Center. “Giving people access to attorneys is the most effective way to quickly reduce the number of evictions in Virginia. … If we’re talking about what will change the situation fastest, it’s keeping that money in the budget.”

Stretch goals: give tenants more time to pay, rein in late fees

In addition to the aforementioned legislative proposals coming out of the housing commission, tenant advocates say they’re lining up lawmakers to introduce legislation that landlord and housing groups opposed in discussions earlier this year.

Marra and Martin Wegbreit, the director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, are pushing for legislation that would:

• Give tenants more time to pay their rent before a landlord can sue to evict them. Currently tenants have five days. They want that increased to 14 days, making it more likely a tenant paid every two weeks will receive a pay check that allows them to get current on rent before an eviction lawsuit can be filed against them.

• Landlords opposed the measure because they said it can already take months to successfully evict a non-paying tenant, and that extending that time further would hurt their bottom-line and in some cases jeopardize their ability to pay mortgages on the property they’re leasing.

• Another measure would prohibit landlords for terminating a lease solely because of nonpayment of late fees. Marra said some tenants fall a few days behind on rent, pay, but can’t afford the standard $75 to $100 late fee. That can then snowball. She said the proposal would still allow landlords to take tenants to court for unpaid late fees, just not evict them.

• A third proposal would allow tenants who win eviction lawsuits to recover their legal expenses from their landlord. Currently, tenants who lose cases typically are required through a clause in their lease to pay their landlord’s legal fees. Marra said the legislation would simply make the arrangement reciprocal, and make it much easier for tenants who have good cases to find lawyers willing to represent them.

• Finally, they are seeking a budget amendment that would provide $5 million for an eviction prevention program, which would operate separately from the diversion program outlined above with the aim of stopping evictions before they happen by providing financial aid and counseling to tenants.

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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.