Virginia has more than a billion dollars in aid for people behind on rent. Here’s how to get it.

By: - June 24, 2021 12:02 am

An apartment building in Norfolk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Update: After this story was published, the Centers for Disease Control announced a final extension of federal eviction protections through the end of July.

State and federal pandemic eviction protections come to an end next week, but there’s still help available to tenants who have fallen behind on their rent — hundreds of millions of dollars worth of help.

“It’s a huge sum of money,” said Martin Wegbreit, director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, which represents tenant facing eviction. “My goodness, we should use it and take advantage of this pretty much unprecedented and unique opportunity.”

But to tap into $1 billion worth of federal aid earmarked for Virginia, tenants or their landlords must proactively apply, and there’s no longer any rules requiring property owners to cooperate.

A ‘national model’ comes to an end

Last year, state lawmakers established a rent relief program they funded with successive infusions of cash, mostly from federal aid packages. At the same time, they created rules that require landlords to alert tenants that the assistance is available and fill out an application on their behalf. Landlords have been barred from pursuing an eviction except in cases where a tenant refuses to cooperate, is denied, or it takes more than 45 days for the state to process the application.

The approach appeared to work, drawing recognition as a national model for how to address evictions.

To date, the state has distributed $244.6 million to 49,000 households, according to the Department of Housing and Community Development, which is overseeing the program. And last year, coupled with other interventions, eviction plummeted. An analysis by the RVA Eviction Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University found eviction filings and judgements dropped to about 10 percent of the prior-year’s volume.

The mandatory part of the program, however, comes to an end on June 30, when the state of emergency declared by Gov. Ralph Northam over 15 months ago comes to an end. Northam cited a dramatic decline in coronavirus infections. A federal moratorium on evictions, which allowed tenants to block court action by attesting financial hardship related to the pandemic, also expires on June 30.

Tenant advocates argued it’s too soon to end the protections because financial difficulties caused by the pandemic will linger for months. Northam’s administration has responded by pointing to the extensive aid that remains available to tenants.

Who is eligible for help

While the state’s rent-relief program has a range of eligibility requirements, advocates say most people who need help will likely qualify.

The state has set up an interactive eligibility screening tool, but applicants must meet three primary financial criteria:

• The monthly rent must be at or below 150 percent of the federally designated fair market rent for their locality, which ranges from $1,051 for a two-bedroom apartment in rural Lee County to $2,647 in Fairfax County.

• The household’s income at the time of the application must fall below 80 percent of the area median income, which, again, ranges from $43,000 for a family of three in Lee County to $74,100 in Fairfax.

• Finally, the applicant must have experienced financial hardship that’s in some way related to the pandemic. Examples cited by the state in application materials include being laid off, having hours reduced, being unable to find work and being unwilling or unable to return to work because of child care or high risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

How to get it

Tenants or landlords can apply through the state’s website. Applications require documentation, some of which must come from the tenant and some of which must come from the landlord.

The tenant is required to provide a proof of income in the form of a pay stub, bank statement, letter from an employer or other official documentation.

Either party can provide a copy of the lease or other documentation outlining the rental relationship.

Landlords must provide a rent ledger and a Virginia W-9 tax form, which documents their taxpayer identification number and business information.

While nothing requires landlords to continue notifying tenants of the assistance available or help them apply, property managers say it will likely remain a standard practice.

“I think everyone is going to continue to notify people about the rent relief program,” said Patrick McCloud, who directs the Virginia Apartment Management Association, which represents some of the state’s largest landlords.

Likewise, he said it was unlikely a landlord would decline to cooperate with a tenant’s application. He said the most important thing for tenants to do is to remain in communication with whoever is managing the property.

“If you know you’re going to be late on rent, talk to management before the rent is due.”

A sheriff’s deputy in Newport News hands eviction paperwork last year to Cecelia Woodard, who said she was unable to find work during the pandemic and was five months behind on her rent. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Other protections remain

Wegbreit, who represents tenants facing eviction in court, said that even though there’s no legislative requirement that a landlord cooperate, a court would be unlikely to award back rent to someone who refused to participate in the program. That’s because common law requires parties in a contract to take reasonable steps to mitigate their damages in the event of a breach.

“Certainly I could see some number of landlords foolishly doing that,” he said. “I say foolishly because they’d be cutting off their nose to spite their face by not taking the money and getting made whole when it’s a fairly easy process.”

And while mandatory participation is out, other protections remain.

Through the end of September, tenants who do wind up in court facing an eviction lawsuit are entitled to an automatic, 60-day continuance if they can demonstrate they lost income due to the pandemic.

And through at least July of 2022, landlords will have to wait 14 days instead of the customary five between alerting tenants they’re behind on rent and filing an eviction lawsuit.

“The reason 14 days is particularly useful as opposed to five days is most people get paid twice a month — not every five days,” said Phil Storey, who directs the Virginia Poverty Law Center’s eviction helpline. “If you’re just falling behind, it can make all the difference.”

Finally, landlords with a management interest in 5 or more apartments are still required to offer a payment plan to tenants.

Storey encouraged tenants who need legal advice to contact their local legal aid group or call the eviction helpline at 1-833-NoEvict.

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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.