As federal eviction protections expire, advocates say rent relief isn’t reaching enough Virginians

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- As more eviction protections expire amid the coronavirus pandemic, advocates say funding to help people catch up on rent isn’t reaching everyone in need.

Gov. Ralph Northam launched the Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program (RMRP) one month ago around the same time as a statewide freeze on eviction proceedings ended. Northam has since deflected calls from advocates to extend the protections using an executive order, saying that this would be a ‘legally difficult’ move that would likely be ineffective.

Late last week, a nationwide moratorium temporarily preventing eviction for those with federally-backed mortgages and subsidized housing also expired, compounding a housing crisis already underway.

After statewide protections ended, Gov. Northam encouraged judges to defer eviction hearings at the local level but many have not. According to data compiled by the Legal Aid Justice Center, there have been 9,860 eviction hearings since June 22 and nearly 1,800 families have already lost their homes. The Center’s data shows another 10,000 hearings are scheduled over the next 8 weeks, though more notices are likely to be mailed out in the meantime.

Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (VADHCD) Director Erik Johnston said they’re expecting rent relief to be in higher demand in the coming months, especially if federal eviction protections and unemployment funding support aren’t restored in Congress’s next relief package.

“I just don’t see Democrats agreeing to another bill that doesn’t have housing aid,” said U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA).

VADHCD, whose administering the rent and mortgage relief program through 30 local grantees, said more than 1,880 households were served from June 29 to July 15. Data is not yet available for the weeks that followed, according to the department.

During that same time period, VADHCD said grantees processed payments for 467 households throughout Virginia. The total for those payments was more than $620,700, just over 1 percent of the $50 million dollar pot at the program’s disposal.

Thomas Assefa, organizing director for the New Virginia Majority, said many of their members have had trouble accessing the funds.

“I wish I could tell you good news about the program,” Assefa said.

Assefa said some members have faced language barriers and long-turn around times during the application process. He said others are still waiting to hear back in the first place.

The group is calling on the state to stand up a 24-hour multi-lingual hot line. They also want grantees to respond to applicants and process payments faster.

VADHCD just procured a translation service and is in the process of making the service available to grantees. Johnston said many of their local partners are hiring additional staff to speed things up.

“Some of them [grantees] do have a waiting list but I would encourage people to get on that list. Apply and the grantee will get to them as quickly as possible,” Johnston said.

Johnston said the initial intake, which includes housing counseling and information-gathering, generally takes more than an hour. He said the overall application can last anywhere from 5-14 business days, depending negotiations with landlords and mortgage companies.

While some have been frustrated by the pace of the program, others have been hesitant to apply because they don’t fit neatly into the criteria.

Jolene Bosher, 45, lives with her 17 year-old son. With an eviction hearing scheduled for Tuesday, Bosher said she has yet to apply because she’s not sure if she qualifies for assistance. Bosher, who said she suffers from chronic pain, was not employed before the pandemic and hasn’t personally lost income because of it. She’s hoping her daughter’s circumstances could make her eligible because she used to help with rent.

“We are truly facing homelessness and we have nowhere to go. I’m praying when we go to court tomorrow we will at least get 30 more days,” Bosher said.

Callan Hisle, 31, is just now planning to apply after previously hoping her unemployment would come through. Hisle fears returning to an in-person job could put her and her kids at risk, as well as her roommate’s child, who she said is at high-risk for coronavirus complications.

Hisle said August will be the third month in a row that she won’t be able to afford her rent. She said she’s been unable to reach anyone at the Virginia Employment Commission to fix an incorrect direct deposit number she entered while applying for assistance in May. She hasn’t gotten an eviction notice yet but she worries her landlord’s patience is running out.

“I’m really scared of losing my kids honestly,” Hisle said. “If I get evicted, I don’t have anywhere to go. I would just be homeless.”

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