New policies to help RRHA tenants

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 7/30/2020, 6 p.m.
With nearly two in five residents of public housing in Richmond behind in paying rent and/or electricity charges, the city’s …

With nearly two in five residents of public housing in Richmond behind in paying rent and/or electricity charges, the city’s housing authority is pushing policy changes to avoid mass evictions.

Before the temporary federal freeze on evictions expired on Saturday, July 25, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority reached repayment agreements with 900 of the 1,400 public housing residents who RRHA stated had past due balances.

RRHA began cutting the repayment deals in November, when it initially halted evictions.

The agency plans to begin sending 30-day notices to families who are behind and failed to put a payment arrangement in place by Friday, July 24.

However Cory J. Wolfe, RRHA’s general counsel, stated that “in consideration of the ongoing pandemic,” the authority will extend the option for tenants who receive a 30-day “pay-or-quit” notice as August begins to craft repayment deals with RRHA to avoid having the authority file for a court order in September to evict them.

In addition, RRHA’s board has approved major changes in the way the authority internally accounts for monthly payments from the estimated 3,500 households RRHA serves. Those changes could eliminate some utility debts and allow some tenants who are listed as past due to be shown as paying on time for at least the current month.

The changes were approved just two weeks before Richmond City Council replaced some of the RRHA board members.

On Monday, City Council appointed to the board Dr. Basil I. Gooden, former state secretary of agriculture and forestry; lobbyist M. Barrett Hardiman; and former

City Councilman William R. Johnson Jr. The council also reappointed RRHA Board Vice Chair Neil S. Kessler.

The new accounting changes could remove RRHA from being ranked near the top for housing evictions.

The changes also could result in a substantial reduction in the number of families ousted, according to housing attorneys and activists who are cheering the action after pressing for the changes for two years.

“RRHA is finally coming around,” said Louisa Rich, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center in Richmond and a member of the center’s legal team that has been advocating for the policy overhaul.

Among other things, RRHA will no longer apply monthly rental payments to past due utility charges and past due rent first, according to a fact sheet issued by Mr. Wolfe and Stacy Daniels-Fayson, RRHA’s interim chief executive officer.

Under the revamped policy the RRHA board approved on July 15, “all resident payments will be applied to the current month’s rent first,” according to Ms. Daniels-Fayson and Mr. Wolfe.

Ms. Rich said the previous policy virtually ensured struggling tenants would be listed as having failed to completely pay the current month’s rent and also ensured late fees would be piled on. Even if a ten- ant paid in full and on time for the current month, RRHA’s application of some or all of the money to past bills meant residents could never pay on time for any month.

The new policy also requires monthly payments to first go toward paying rent, the fact sheet notes: “Utilities will be paid last once all other charges are satisfied.”

In addition, RRHA has gone back to Feb. 1, 2013, to change the way monthly pay- ments for each tenant have been recorded.

The change ensures rental payments now show that they first went to pay rent and that utilities were paid last — potentially eliminating tens of thousands in late fees for unpaid rent that have built up.

In addition, Ms. Rich said RRHA largely has agreed to forgive unpaid utility bills from February 2013 through July. That’s also good news for tenants, whose rent is based on income, but whose electric bills are not and solely reflect usage.

She cited one client who faithfully paid her rent, but was evicted because much of the money was first used to cover the woman’s electricity charges of $200 a month that essentially made the unit unaffordable due to her income.

Also effective Aug. 1, RRHA will reduce the late payment charge from $15 to $5 and will apply the charge only to a current month. No additional late fees will be added to past due rent in prior months or years, the fact sheet notes.

And if the rent for each month is paid by the eighth day of the month, “no late fee will be incurred even if you owe other RRHA charges,” the fact sheet continues.

Also, no late fees will be added to residents’past due amounts that occurred during the federally mandated lease-enforcement freeze that began in April and continued through July 25, Mr. Wolfe stated.

Ms. Rich noted that the Legal Aid Justice Center sued RRHA three years ago for allegedly overcharging former and current tenants for electricity, leading to a settlement in which people impacted received rebates or bill credits.

She said during the 2018-19 settlement period that RRHA rejected the kind of changes that were just approved. In Ms. Rich’s view, those changes mean “people are less likely to get evicted from public housing for old debt and utility bills.”