Virginia leads nation in distribution of federal rent relief

‘This is a great thing’

By: - September 7, 2021 12:02 am

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

Virginia has distributed more of its share of federal rent relief money to families struggling in the pandemic than any other state in the country, according to U.S. Treasury data.

“This is a great thing,” said Christie Marra, the director of housing advocacy at the Virginia Poverty Law Center. “The whole goal here is to prevent massive homelessness and displacement during a pandemic. People should stay housed.”

In the first half of this year, Virginia provided assistance to between 6,000 and 9,000 families a month, the treasury report shows. The aid adds up to nearly a quarter billion dollars, or about 42 percent of the funding allocated.

The next nearest state, Texas, had distributed just under 35 percent of its federal rent relief allocation. And 40 states had distributed less than 10 percent of their allocation.

State officials and advocates attribute Virginia’s success to the fact that it was one of the few states in the country to stand up a rent relief program using CARES Act funding early in the pandemic and, when that ran out, state funds. Advocates also credit the passage of emergency eviction rules that bar landlords from evicting renters without first applying for aid.

Marra said both actions were possible because policymakers were already well aware of the state’s high eviction rates following a 2018 report by Princeton University, which led to a front-page story in The New York Times highlighting Richmond’s status as the eviction capital of the country.

“We had a heightened awareness of the number of evictions in the state and just how easy it is to evict somebody here,” she said.

Virginia arrived at its status as a leader on pandemic housing aid in fits and starts. The state initially relied on a judicial order from the Supreme Court of Virginia to limit evictions. But by July, the courts said they could no longer justify unilaterally halting the cases and, in the absence of action by lawmakers, evictions temporarily resumed.

The state stood up its first rent relief program that same month and, in August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a federal moratorium. But many tenants didn’t know about either, and, in many localities, evictions proceeded.

It wasn’t until late November that the General Assembly acted to bar landlords from pursuing eviction without first letting tenants know aid was available and applying on their behalf — an approach that has since drawn national recognition. The mandate that landlords apply for the aid then expired this summer, only to be reinstated again by lawmakers last month.

Despite the halting nature of the protections, aid has steadily flowed since it first became available last year.

“Virginia is really unique in that we have had a continuous program supporting rent relief since June of 2020,” said Amanda Love, a spokeswoman for the Department of Housing and Community Development, which is administering the program. “Many states may have just set up a program."

Love said the state has so far made more than 57,000 rent relief payments. Of the households that received payments, 60 percent included children under 8 years old, according to the department.

Under current federal rules, the state can cover past-due rent, the current month's rent and up to three months of future rent payments. The aid is capped at a total of 18 months of assistance.

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.

Love said that with a second tranche of $450 million coming to the state through the American Rescue Plan, Virginia has enough money to continue running the program for at least another 18 months.

“We’re still in the midst of a pandemic,” she said. “And we do know people still need that help.”

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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.