Richmond’s eviction problem and what’s being done about it

Richmond
Richmond evictions

Richmond evictions (File Photo)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — “No job, no rent,” has been the battle cry of some Richmonders struggling to pay rent after the COVID-19 pandemic took away their jobs.

Emergency funding and orders at the state and federal level have helped keep some of them in their homes.

In June, Governor Ralph Northam requested and received a temporary statewide moratorium on all eviction proceedings in the state. That request was later extended by the Supreme Court of Virginia until Labor Day. He then asked the court to extend it again until October, but they denied his request.

However, at the beginning of September the Trump administration issued a directive halting the eviction of certain renters though the end of 2020.

And on August 31, Northam issued $4 million of additional funding for the Legal Services Corporation of Virginia to support 20 legal aid attorneys in providing help to Virginians facing eviction over the next two years.

But renters, landlords and people who work in the housing community wonder how long the grace will last.

Richmond’s eviction issues existed long before the coronavirus changed the shape of our economy. The City has the second-highest eviction rate in the country and Virginia has five cities in the top 10, according to 2016 data* from The Eviction Lab at Princeton University.

According to the non-profit group Code for Hampton Roads Richmond leads the state with 993 evictions on the docket from Sept. 14-Nov. 11. That is about 13 percent of all evictions in the state. It is important to note this was the number of cases on Sept. 13, and more could have been added since that data was gathered.

In this May 20, 2020, file photo, signs that read “No Job No Rent” hang from the windows of an apartment building during the coronavirus pandemic in Northwest Washington. The pandemic has shut housing courts and prompted authorities around the U.S. to initiate policies protecting renters from eviction. But not everyone is covered, and some landlords are turning to threats and harassment to force tenants out. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Why is this happening in Richmond?

“I think there are a number of factors that lead Richmond to being in the state that it is,” said Lavar Edmonds, a researcher at Princeton’s Eviction Lab.

Princeton’s Eviction Lab says it is the first nationwide database of evictions and tracks how many evictions are happening in communities across the country.

There is also a Richmond-based eviction lab, which is unrelated to the lab at Princeton University. The RVA Eviction Lab, according to its website, takes a deeper look at qualitative and quantitative eviction data to meet the research needs of local organizations and officials. The group said this research and analysis is necessary because of Richmond’s high eviction rate.

Kathryn Howell, co-director of RVA Eviction Lab, said the issues that have led to Richmond’s high eviction numbers include:

  • a mixed real estate market, meaning a hot market in some areas but not others;
  • low minimum wage;
  • lack of laws that support tenants;
  • low investment in affordable housing;
  • and the low cost for landlords filing for an eviction in Virginia.

She said that while other states may have one of these issues, the combination of all of these factors has led to Richmond reaching its current state.

For rent

Serial Evictions

Edmonds, from Princeton’s Eviction Lab, said one thing the lab looks at are serial evictions, which is when a landlord takes the same tenant to court multiple times. He said the rates of these kinds of evictions is very high in Virginia.

“What we’ll see sometimes in a group of serial cases there will be multiple eviction judgments,” Edmonds said. “But clearly if we see an eviction in February and you’re back in the court in July, well you probably weren’t actually evicted. The landlord just got that judgment and used it … as a tool against the tenant.”

He said rather than actually intending to evict the tenant and remove them from the property, landlords use the eviction judgment as a device to try and collect rent from the tenant.

Martin Wegbreit, Director of Litigation for the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, referenced a statistic from Princeton’s Eviction Lab that showed the landlord’s cost of filing an eviction directly correlated with the time between non-payment of rent and eviction filings.

“If it’s more costly, you’re going to be more inclined to wait and try to work out a payment plan with your tenants which basically succeeds in keeping them there,” he believes. “If it’s really quick and cheap [to file for an eviction]… then there’s no disincentive to not file it.”

One way Wegbreit said Virginia can reduce the rate of evictions is making it as easy and productive to not file an eviction as it is to file one.

“And so far, we’ve failed miserably in that regard,” he said.

In addition to default filings, where the tenants don’t appear in court, Wegbreit said he believes the system also runs on “ignorance, fear and intimidation.”

“Very often, landlords are filing these eviction lawsuits and getting their judgments as additional leverage,” he said.

Patrick McCloud, Chief Executive Officer of the Virginia Apartment Management Association, disagrees with the idea that evictions are used as a tool to collect rent, but are a part of the contractual agreement.

“Evictions only happen after a breach of contract because you are contractually obligated to pay rent,” McCloud said. “Housing is a service, and if you don’t pay, we as the landlords have to use the legal system.”

He said if a person doesn’t pay their phone bill, Verizon can just cut off their service. For landlords, evictions are that back stop.

“People pay their cell phone bills because they want to be able to continue to talk on their cell phone — the same reason people pay rent, so they can have a place to live,” McCloud said.

One reason McCloud said landlords are less likely to try to work something out with a tenant and instead sends an eviction notice is because the property owner may be three to four weeks behind on rent if the tenant doesn’t follow through with their end of the agreement.

“It’s a mixed bag, but I will tell you in this crisis (the pandemic), pretty much every property manager I’ve talked to has been working out payment plans with residents who are unable to pay,” he said.

In this April 1, 2020, photo, a pedestrian walks past graffiti that reads "Rent Strike" in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood.
In this April 1, 2020, photo, a pedestrian walks past graffiti that reads “Rent Strike” in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. The White House announced Tuesday, Sept. 1, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would act under its broad powers to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The measure would forbid landlords from evicting anyone for failure to pay rent, providing the renter meets criteria. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Cost of housing

The Central Virginia Legal Aid Society reviewed a month of eviction lawsuits from 2018 and 2019 and found that 95 percent of evictions in Richmond involved non-payment of rent.

“That tells you the problem right there,” Wegbreit said.

He added from his experience, people aren’t just sitting on hordes of money they are using irresponsibly, but they are struggling to pay rent.

One big reason, according to Wegbreit, is many renters are cost-burdened, meaning they are using 30 percent or more of their income on housing costs.

According to the Housing Opportunities Made Equal, 51 percent of renters in Richmond are cost-burdened. And of that 51 percent, 21 percent of them are severely cost burned, meaning they are spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing costs.

“I think that contributes a lot. When we look at how many people in Richmond are cost-burned it’s shocking,” Wegbreit said.

“And that’s just unsustainable over the long term,” Wegbreit said. “All it takes is just one unexpected decrease in income, whether you lose your job or you’re cut back (at) work, or unexpected expense … to just completely throw you budget off-kilter and make you unable to pay rent.”

On Thursday, July 9, 2020, several dozen people gathered at the John Marshall Courthouse in downtown Richmond to protest people being taken from their homes. (photo taken by 8News’ Alex Thorson)

The racial disparity in Richmond’s evictions

Lavar Edmonds, from Princeton’s Eviction Lab, said high eviction areas aren’t correlated with rates of poverty so much as they are with the percentage of Black renters living in an area.

“That’s something we’ve been looking into for a while, is the disparities in evictions by race, specifically of Black renters being more likely to be filed on, more likely to be evicted,” he said.

Edmonds said Richmond’s rates of evictions are clusters in certain parts of the city and areas with a higher concentration of Black residents have the highest rates.

“When we analyzed the data, the most influential factor in determining neighborhood level of eviction rate was neighborhood racial composition,” said Kathryn Howell, from RVA Eviction Lab

Howell said that race was twice as influential on eviction rates as property value, income or any other factors.

“Virtually every presentation I ever do on the Richmond eviction crisis I display two maps,” Wegbreit said. “One of them is the Richmond redlining map from 1937 and the other is the eviction rate map from 2016, and it’s the same map.”

Redlining is shorthand for the system of determining the availability of federally insured mortgages. In the 1930s, many neighborhoods that did not sell to minorities were coded as blue or green, and those with minorities were coded as red, or “definitely declining.” Howell said redlines were not given insured mortgages, which effectively shut out people of color from getting mortgages.

The areas that were historically redlined currently have the highest eviction rates.

“The sins of the grandparents are being visited by the grandchildren,” Wegbreit said. “Decisions to redline and dis-invest in those communities 80 years ago has led to the current crisis today.”

Howell said that because of redlining, African Americans were kept out of the buyer’s market through blatant discrimination that was legal until 1968. Since they were locked out for so long, they are more likely to be renters.

“If you look at redlining, if you look at urban renewal, and highway projects and the maps of foreclosure, the maps of the foreclosure line up, so all of these elements have an influence,” she explained.

Howell believes that Black and brown communities also face discrimination issues for criminal convictions, which due to unequal policing practices impact Black and brown communities more.

“It’s not that we’re just evicting Black and brown people more. But in fact even the neighborhoods themselves, there’s something going on there,” Howell said.

She said people don’t move out of these areas for two reasons — they have been systemically excluded and some people want to stay because moving to an area with poor public transportation will make it more difficult to access their job, childcare and family.

“People don’t move into poor quality housing because they have a lot of options,” Howell said.

Howell also said higher-cost neighborhoods also have a shortage of rental housing.

“And those communities have worked really hard at leaving rental housing out through zoning,” Howell said.

An eviction’s long-term impact

Even if a person’s eviction doesn’t result in them being removed from their home, Edmonds said it can have long-term effects.

Wegbreit said even if a person wins their eviction case, the fact they were taken to court over it will stay on their public record for 10 years — even if it is later dismissed. It’s listed under “judgement of possession” on the Virginia Judicial System’s website, which shows every unlawful detainer eviction lawsuit filed in every General District Court in Virginia. 

He said the eviction record serves as a barrier for moving to a new residence and keeps people trapped in their current housing, which then adds to repeat eviction filings. And factors such as fees and court costs associated with late-rent evictions contribute to a downward spiral into poverty.

Edmonds said he thinks people also need to recognize how important housing is to our lives.

“Sometimes I hear people frame it as ‘Oh, well if you don’t pay your car payments you lose your car,'” Edmonds said. “I think that’s a bit of a deflection and probably a false equivalency. Housing is fundamental — it’s so much the foundation of our lives that when you lose your housing, it ripples into other areas … I think many people underestimate the severity of circumstances when people lose their housing.”

He said it can affect people’s health, employment status, and if there are children, it will affect their education and psychological development.

“It’s not just one isolated incident … it destabilizes communities,” Edmonds said.

Virginia Eviction
Person poses with a sign that reads, “No evictions it’s inhumane to evict in a pandemic.”

COVID-19 and evictions

On a local level, Wegbreit said the city is doing what it can to help curb evictions, including creating a rent relief fund.

Sharon Ebert, Richmond’s deputy chief administrative officer for economic and community development, said of the first $20.1 million CARES Act funding it received, Richmond allocated $6 million to help with housing issues.

Of that $6 million, she said $1 million is going to HOME of VA to augment its Eviction Diversion Program for households that are currently in eviction court with an unlawful detainer that were behind in rent payments.

“This is in addition to the $485,140 FY21 funding the city provides HOME of VA from its general funds and the $250,000 that the city provided HOME of VA at the beginning of April for the Eviction Diversion Program when the Pandemic first hit,” Ebert explained in an email.

As of Sept. 9, the Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program also distributed $7.2 million in rent and mortgage payments for 3,611 households throughout the Commonwealth. However, more than 5,400 households applied for these funds.

Howell thinks the money being given to renters impacted by COVID-19 is “oversubscribed,” and there is going to be a need for money.

“I think we’re going to have more people who need it than we actually have funds to carry it out,” she said.

McCloud said the Apartment Management Association also thinks the government needs to do a better job helping out unemployed people, and even sent letters to ever member of the General Assembly asking for a continuation of unemployment benefits so they could keep that money in the economy.

“Because when you take that money out of the economy you really create a domino effect which basically sets up a 2008-style economic collapse,” he said.

McCloud said he believes cities are also losing money by renters not being able to pay because it decreases the asset value of the property, which property taxes are based on.

“Roughly speaking, and it depends on where you are in the state, for every dollar not collected you’re looking at a loss of the city between $0.13 and $0.17 of tax revenue,” McCloud said.

However, McCloud said he and his organization are not fans of eviction memorandums. He referred to them as an “unconstitutional taking of property.”

“Well anytime you take private property for a public purpose, which is clearly what is being stated in that moratorium, is a taking and that is unconstitutional and in violation of the 5th Amendment,” McCloud said.

He said the two major things all people need are food and shelter, and the General Assembly hasn’t said people should be able to go into a grocery store and take food without paying for it.

“But housing we are trying to say it is the job of private property owners to pick up the slack of the government not following through on their obligations,” McCloud said.

He said if eviction moratoriums are put in place for a public purpose, the government has a responsibility for just compensation, ideally in the form of extended unemployment benefits so people have the ability to meet their financial obligations.

“I think that’s the thing that’s been missed. We can’t say enough that we need Congress to get back in and actually do their job and actually get something done,” McCloud said. “Our industry was talking about problems in the month of September back in April. Why in the world Congress dragged their feet and didn’t get anything done is beyond us because this wasn’t rocket science – we all knew this was coming.”

Kathryn Howell, with RVA Eviction Lab, believes the coronavirus has caused what will be a long-term economic problem that won’t just go away even if we opened up tomorrow.

“The economy isn’t just going to bounce back to what it was, and I think that’s maybe a really important thing people don’t seem to have fully grasped,” she said.

She said if people are evicted they won’t be going out to buy things, and if landlords don’t have tenants they also won’t be going out and spending money.

“This has ripple effects on our regional economy,” she said.

Howell said people need to start thinking about ways to manage and negotiate rent so landlords can get some money and people can stay in their homes, and we can weather COVID-19 better.

*2016 is the most recent data available

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