By Jaclyn Barton and Patricia Cason/ Capital News Service
Martin Wegbreit has known for a long time that Richmond has a problem with evictions, but a 2018 New York Times article brought national attention to the issue. It said the city’s eviction rate was more than 11% — three to four times the national average.
“The only thing that really surprises me about evictions in Richmond is how surprised everybody else is,” said Wegbreit, the director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society.
Since the article came out, city and state officials started allocating more resources to the problem, and those strategies appear to be working: Through September of this year, the number of evictions has dropped about 19% in Richmond and 14% across Virginia, according to an analysis of court data.
From Jan. 1 through Sept. 30, about 10,600 eviction cases were filed in General District Court in Richmond. That compares with more than 13,000 cases during the corresponding period of 2018.
Eviction by the numbers
Statewide, about 155,000 evictions were filed in 2018. About 125,000 of those cases were filed during the first nine months of the year. During the first nine months of 2019, about 108,000 evictions were filed statewide.
Richmond’s evictions accounted for about 10% of the statewide total — more than any other city or county. Through September, Newport News had about 9,500 evictions; Norfolk, approximately 8,800; and Virginia Beach, more than 8,400.
Much of the concern about evictions in Richmond has focused on the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which provides public housing for low-income families including housing complexes like Creighton, Fairfield, Gilpin, Hillside, Mosby and Whitcomb courts.
During 2018, the RRHA accounted for almost 2,200 evictions. Through September of this year, the RRHA had filed about 1,500 evictions — 15% fewer than the agency took to court during the same period of 2018.
In November, RRHA implemented an agency-wide freeze on lease enforcement for nonpayment of rent. As a result, “no public housing family will be removed from their home for debt owed to RRHA.”
The eviction process
Tough eviction laws in Virginia contribute to the state’s high eviction rate, according to tenant advocates. For example, if tenants miss a rent payment in Virginia, they can be told to provide the money within five days. In other states, notices can be up to 30 days.
Wegbreit said Virginia’s eviction laws are too harsh. “To be honest, I think they are less favorable [and] less friendly to tenants,” he said.
Wegbreit says part of the problem is the archaic legal terminology surrounding evictions. Many tenants receive eviction notices they struggle to understand. For example, “unlawful detainer” is the official legal term for eviction in the state.
“When you have an unlawful detainer, that is when the court finds you guilty of not paying your rent, and that’s when the official eviction ends up on the record,” said Amelie Rives, a graduate student who works with the RVA Eviction Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Rives said tenants are given a five-day notice to “pay or quit” after the payment grace period.
“Most people actually pay within the five to 10 days once they get the ‘pay or quit,’” Rives said. “And the reason why it’s so hard to track the numbers for eviction is a lot of this happens outside of the court system.”
After the five-day notice, the landlord can file a formal eviction against the tenant. A court date is set, and the tenant must attend even if the rent owed has been paid.
At the court date, a writ of possession is issued if the tenant is found guilty of “unlawful detainer,” or not paying rent. This writ is what allows the sheriff to evict a tenant. The tenants have 10 to 15 days to leave, or the sheriff will come remove them.
Sheriff evictions account for 30% of involuntary moves. Rives said this is the only number that can easily be tracked, despite the fact that it’s less than a third of total evictions.
Since evictions stay on a tenant’s record for about seven years, tenants are left with fewer housing options after an eviction.
“It really ties people to their location in a way that can and cannot be helpful depending on what life circumstances they’re in,” Rives said.
Challenges in finding resources
Rives says it’s difficult for people going through eviction to find assistance.
“There’s a mix of not having enough bandwidth and that scarcity of ability to think about anything else. If you’re going through eviction, there is probably a lot more going on, but you’ve got to focus on that one thing,” Rives said.
Moreover, she said, “There’s not necessarily a streamlined place that someone could go and qualify for assistance, especially if that person is not extremely low-income or they don’t have children.”
Poverty is a cause of eviction in Richmond. The city’s poverty rate is 22%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey.
Arlington and Fairfax counties have programs called “coordinated or centralized access” to assist tenants facing evictions. These programs provide one-stop shopping for helpful resources. Both counties’ poverty rates are lower than Richmond’s.
Although Richmond does have resources such as the Evictions Diversion Pilot Program, most tenants aren’t aware of where they can go for help, tenant advocates say. As a result, and because they may feel helpless during the eviction process, many tenants do not show up for their court dates, Rives said.
A task force to address the issue
Wegbreit is a co-facilitator of the Evictions Task Force, which Richmond created to address the eviction crisis.
The idea came after two law students from Yale and Stanford University conducted research about evictions in Richmond for seven months. They wrote a report of recommendations on how to address the problem.
The Evictions Task Force is a group of stakeholders that includes public housing residents, tenant advocates, nonprofit executives, civil rights lawyers, homelessness specialists and academics.
“I’m one of those people who believes you can’t really see results unless you have a nice mix of diversity and opinion,” Rives said of the task force. “So when you have that nice diversity of opinion in such a public way, I think that you can see results.”
The task force will focus on six primary areas: prevention, landlord and tenant education, individuals who are at or below 30% of area median income, tenant support, centralized supportive services and affordable housing.
“I think the goal for this task force is to prioritize what are the things that we can do sooner rather than later,” Mayor Levar Stoney said at the Evictions Task Force meeting on Dec. 2. “Let us, let the politicians, worry about the cost. You guys find the solutions, and then if you guys find great solutions, the politicians will find the will to find the dollars.”
About the data in this report: For this story, multimedia journalists Patricia Cason and Jaclyn Barton analyzed data on evictions cases filed in General District Court throughout Virginia. The data had been scraped from the state’s court system by Ben Schoenfeld, a software engineer in Hampton Roads, and posted on an open website. Evictions cases, officially called “unlawful detainers,” are civil filings. So the reporters downloaded records on all civil cases filed in General District Court statewide in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 (through September). From the 2.8 million records, the reporters extracted the eviction cases — more than 620,000. They used Microsoft Access and Excel to look at the number of evictions by year and by locality. The reporters also examined the number of cases filed by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority.