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Expiration of renters’ protections sparks fear of increased evictions

As eviction protections in Virginia expire on June 30, seeking out professional help and resources is a key recommendation for anyone facing eviction.
As eviction protections in Virginia expire on June 30, seeking out professional help and resources is a key recommendation for anyone facing eviction.

by David Slipher

Throughout the pandemic, Virginia has served as a national model for its successful eviction diversion program. Eviction filings and judgments in Virginia have decreased approximately 350% from the first quarter of 2020 to the first quarter of 2022 due to a coordinated and rapid dispersion of federal rent relief funding, according to new RVA Eviction Lab data.

But these funds, totaling $1 billion, have largely expired. No new applications have been considered for relief funding since May 15. As of June 30, the last of Virginia’s eviction protections will expire and landlords will no longer be required by law to apply for rent relief funding compensation for tenants who are unable to pay rent.

For Kathryn Howell, Ph.D., and Ben Teresa, Ph.D., co-directors of the RVA Eviction Lab at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, a growing worry is that the expiration of the rent relief program will lead to a rash of evictions across Virginia.   

An uncertain outlook for Virginia renters

The RVA Eviction Lab’s 2022 first-quarter report cited data from a U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey of Virginians not caught up on rent, estimating that renters in about 58% of Virginia households fear eviction in the next two months, up from 28% in the fourth quarter of 2021. Approximately 52% of those surveyed were not caught up on their rent payments, compared to 16% at the end of 2021. Most glaringly, 91% of respondents have no or little confidence in their ability to pay the next month’s rent.

“Rents have increased significantly in the city of Richmond,” said Howell, an associate professor. “We don't know how bad it's going to be, but we know affordability will be as bad or worse as what we had at the start of the pandemic. This will have ripple effects to evictions.”

From the second quarter of 2020 to March of 2022, 32,732 eviction judgments were issued across the commonwealth. Data from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University lists Richmond as 14th in the nation with 13,071 total evictions during the same time. In 2016, Richmond had the second-highest eviction rate in the nation, with other Virginia cities, such as Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Chesapeake, not far behind.

But these numbers don’t capture lease nonrenewals or notices of eviction where tenants voluntarily leave residences, either due to poor conditions or because they lack the support or willingness to respond within the legal system.

“Many tenants move before the actual eviction proceeding,” Howell said. “They get a notice or the landlord says, ‘Hey, you gotta go.’ They'll [say], ‘I'm outta here,’ because no one wants their stuff thrown on the sidewalk. And they don't want that eviction on their record.”

Renters have suffered in cities where eviction protections expired earlier or landlord relief filing requirements were less stringent, such as Houston, Texas, where the eviction rate has doubled compared to pre-pandemic levels. In the next two months, Richmond courts have more than 700 eviction hearings scheduled, the most in Virginia.

Those facing eviction are encouraged to contact the Legal Aid Justice Center, the Virginia Poverty Law Center or the Eviction Legal Helpline, which provide free legal assistance, help ensure tenant rights are upheld, look for patterns of abuse and facilitate alternatives to eviction. Housing Opportunities Made Equal and the Virginia Equity Center can provide additional educational resources and support.  

“Seeking out the expert help is really important,” said Teresa, an assistant professor and assistant chair of the urban and regional studies and planning program. “We know that having the proper counsel and representation significantly impacts tenant outcomes in the courtroom. It's really important to have legal expertise and that kind of guidance.”

“Seeking out the expert help is really important,” said Teresa, an assistant professor and assistant chair of the urban and regional studies and planning program. “We know that having the proper counsel and representation significantly impacts tenant outcomes in the courtroom. It's really important to have legal expertise and that kind of guidance.”

What comes next for renters?

Scarcity of affordable housing, rising inflation, supply shortages and delays in new construction are further exacerbating renters’ woes. Richmond rents have risen approximately 21% in the past year, according to CoStar Group, a commercial real estate information company.

“The key question is, what comes after the sort of emergency — even though there's also a case to make that we're not even really out of the emergency period,” Teresa said. “We get to tackle the longer-term lack of affordable housing, lack of renter protections and unstable incomes.”

Lessons learned during the 2008 recession helped Virginia respond more effectively during the pandemic. But emergency measures aren’t a substitute for the long-term policymaking needed to stave off housing insecurity, Howell and Teresa said.

“[In Virginia,] it’s been a testament to all the work that's gone in, but without these protections, I really don't like our chances,” Howell said. “Virginia wanted to get the money out the door and wanted to stop evictions. As well as all sorts of community partners, we had a ton of legal assistance that really helped bring people in the door, making sure people were getting connected to services.”

Support for housing reform and organization of local groups is key to long-term change, Howell and Teresa said. A growing labor movement across the country is also mobilizing for wage reform. Tenant unions are growing to support rights and advocate for collective issues, such as dwelling improvements and repairs.

Teresa and Howell are using the RVA Eviction Lab to create opportunities for Wilder School students, including contributing to the lab’s quarterly reports. Beginning in the fall, graduate students will engage with issues the RVA Eviction Lab is studying through Howell’s Housing Policy course by developing research questions and data collection with community partners, contributing directly to future reports. All students can engage in experiential learning and volunteering opportunities such as court observation during eviction hearings.