Virginia lawmakers advance tenant-friendly laws to cap late fees, force repairs

By: - February 10, 2020 12:02 am

The John Marshall Hotel building in Downtown Richmond now contains apartment housing. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A cap on late fees. More leverage to force repairs. A requirement that all large apartment complexes accept housing vouchers that many low-income residents rely on to pay their rent.

Tenant-friendly laws are advancing through the Democratic-led General Assembly with bi-partisan support this year, a departure from the reliably pro-landlord attitudes of past legislative sessions.

“It’s 2020, man, it’s a different world, but I think it’s about time we bring some parity in contracts with landlords and tenants,” said Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin.

Tenant advocates saw modest gains last year after a study found Virginia cities have among the highest eviction rates in the country, but marquee efforts like an eviction diversion program asked little of landlords, instead appropriating state funds to help people catch up on rent.

“They were the things that could be changed without controversy,” said Christie Marra of the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

This year, she says more lawmakers have been willing to push legislation opposed by the industry, which in turn has been more willing to come to the table to negotiate on bills they might have easily blocked in past years.

One such proposal, filed by Stanley, would allow tenants to make essential repairs and deduct the cost from their rent if their landlord doesn’t take care of the issue within two weeks. After initially opposing the idea, representatives of the apartment industry agreed to a compromise that they said convinced them the new law wouldn’t harm responsible landlords.

“It really is getting at that slumlord-type landlord,” said Chip Dicks, a lobbyist for the Virginia Realtors who is often credited with writing large portions of the state’s landlord-tenant law. “It is significantly targeted toward people who don’t provide good housing.”

But the housing industry was unanimous in its opposition to Stanley’s second bill — something that in past years would have likely doomed housing legislation to an early death. The measure would allow tenants to raise a landlord’s failure to make repairs or otherwise hold up their end of the lease as a defense in the event of an eviction lawsuit.

It’s a law many tenants already believe is on the books, and Stanley says it’s aimed at stopping landlords from evicting tenants who demand repairs.

The committee that heard the bill advanced it to the floor of the Senate on bi-partisan vote in which one Democrat opposed and two Republicans supported.

The House has already passed a range of tenant protections. One bill, proposed by Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, would cap late fees landlords can charge at 10 percent.

It’s not uncommon for some large commercial landlords to assess a flat $70 late fee if residents are even a few dollars short on their rent. Bourne had initially proposed a 5 percent cap, but agreed to raise the figure in a compromise that led the housing industry to support the legislation. The bill passed on a 80-20 vote Friday.

But, as in the Senate, Bourne also saw legislation advance despite ongoing and vigorous industry opposition. Adopted on a 61-37 vote, it would ban any landlord who leases more than four units from refusing to rent to someone solely because they pay with a government housing voucher. (Bourne stressed the legislation wouldn’t exempt them from standard screening techniques employed by the industry, such as a credit check.)

A lobbyist for the Virginia Apartment Management Association said the bill would unfairly force landlords to enter into contracts with the government to participate in a program that they say is inconsistently administered by sometimes dysfunctional local housing authorities.

Some Republicans echoed that language on the House floor Friday, arguing fewer people would be willing to rent out housing. “This is going to drive people out of the market,” said Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, waving a more than 50-page document he said would replace the nine-page leases most landlords currently use. “The unintended consequence is you’re going to have less housing available.”

Bourne responded that it was unacceptable to allow large apartment complexes to continue to ban people just because they are poor.

“On this side, we’re trying to remove barriers and provide opportunities to more people,” Bourne said. “Others would have us designate sections of neighborhoods for affordable housing. Well Madam Speaker, in Richmond we used to call that red lining.”

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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.