Va. lawmakers try to cut down on evictions, create pilot program

Capitol Connection

RICHMOND, Va. — State lawmakers are trying to cut down on the number of evictions in the Commonwealth, passing a series of laws including one that creates a pilot program in four cities to help people get back on their feet.

Lawmakers and the Virginia Housing Commission put a focus on evictions after an article was published last year from the New York Times, showing high numbers of tenants being evicted from their homes in Richmond and across the state.

It’s a problem Richmond mom Monica Joyner knows all too well. 

“I went through a bad marriage and the income decreased,” she explained. “How was I gonna survive?”

Back in 2014, Joyner got divorced from her husband. With half of the income, she and her two boys were evicted from their apartment and became homeless. WRIC 8News met Joyner after her family moved out of a shelter with the help of “Housing Families First.

Not being in their own home took a toll on the boys. It pained Joyner to not be able to keep them in their home.  

“Just that hurt feeling that I’m kind of putting them in this kind of situation,” she explained. “There has to be a better way.”

Joyner isn’t the only Virginian facing a challenge. Richmond, Hampton and Newport News were ranked in the top five for large cities with highest eviction rates in the nation, from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab data

A new law may help tenants and landlords sort this out.  It creates an eviction diversion pilot program in Richmond, Petersburg, Hampton and Danville. The pilot will officially start in July of 2020 and will be overseen by the Supreme Court of Virginia.

“They are basically put in a payment program,” Laura Lafayette, the CEO of the Richmond Association of Realtors, said. 

Lafayette is part of the Virginia Housing Commission which put together the legislation. 

Tenants will have a four-month period to pay back the rent they owe, either paid to the courts or landlord directly. They have to make every court appearance and also explain to a judge, on the record, why they couldn’t pay up in the first place. 

“They explain why they aren’t able to pay their rent, but they do have the capacity going forward to pay that rent,” she said, meaning they need a source of income and can afford to live where they are.

Lafayette explained a lot of people just have a bump in the road that sets them back rent money, for example, a medical emergency or a flat tire. The program is geared towards people dealing with these kinds of issues.

“But you can’t be a chronic late payer,” Lafayette said. 

To qualify, tenants can’t miss more than three rent payments within a year. They also can’t be part of another eviction diversion program in that same year. 

Joyner says programs like this could make a difference.

“There are issues people can’t control and they need help,” she said. 

The pilot program will last until July 2023. The Housing Commission will collect data from the courts to evaluate how effective it is in keeping people in their homes. 

Other municipalities can also create their own eviction diversion programs, following state guidelines. Richmond is working on one currently that the Mayor’s office hopes to roll out this summer. 

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