City sets up $6M eviction assistance plan to aid during COVID-19

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 6/25/2020, 6 p.m.
Janice Lacy had a job she loved transporting elderly and disabled people. But then COVID-19 hit and she was laid ...

Janice Lacy had a job she loved transporting elderly and disabled people. But then COVID-19 hit and she was laid off in mid-March after the state of emergency was declared.

Despite daily efforts, promised unemployment checks have yet to flow, and Ms. Lacy has fallen far behind in her bills, including paying her rent and utilities.

“I’ve never been behind, but now I have a stack of bills I can’t pay and I’m worried,” Ms. Lacy, who also cares for other family members, told City Council Monday night.

Only moratoriums on evictions and utility disconnections have enabled her and her family members to remain in their home, but she has fallen into despair.

Some help could be on the way for Ms. Lacy and hundreds of other Richmond residents facing financial ruin because of the pandemic.

Mayor Levar M. Stoney announced Monday that $6 million in federal CARES Act money is being poured into a relief fund to partially stem the eviction flood that is about to hit the city. The funding will be focused on aiding Richmond residents like Ms. Lacy to avoid losing their homes as the result of coronavirus-related job losses.

One of the single largest appropriations ever for low-income housing, the city plans to distribute the money through ACTS RVA, a Henrico County-based nonprofit that works with people facing a financial crisis. The city funding would be a huge infusion for ACTS, which operates on less than $450,000 a year.

Opened in 2006, the organization is linked with 60 area congregations and other partners that provide financial support.

The state is expected to contribute additional money through a $50 million statewide fund Gov. Ralph S. Northam

announced Wednesday and that the state Department of Housing and Community Development is to administer.

The relief effort is timely. The state Supreme Court on Tuesday lifted its pandemic-related hold on civil cases and directed lower courts to begin hearing cases, including evictions, on Monday, June 29.

At least 1,900 cases involving nonpayment of rent have piled up in Richmond alone, according to the city, including cases landlords filed prior to the governor’s declaration of a health emergency.

Martin D. “Marty” Wegbreit, director of litigation for Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, said he expects an “eviction tsunami” and he appealed to City Council on Monday to make affordable housing a top priority.

He said that in a city notorious for its large numbers of evictions, the backlog means the courts will be hearing double the number of cases normally heard and the number of homeless people is likely to expand.

Mr. Wegbreit said more than 1,300 eviction cases were set to be heard in the final two weeks of June before the state’s highest court temporarily shut down such hearings on June 8 at the request Gov. Northam. Those cases and more no longer will be delayed.

Mayor Stoney, who had been urged to act by a faith-based group, Richmonders Involved to Strengthen Our Communities, announced the $6 million contribution to the relief fund. That is about 30 percent of $20.1 million the city has received in federal dollars to cover pandemic-related costs.

He stated the $6 million would support households currently facing eviction as well as those at risk of eviction because of economic challenges arising from COVID-19.

“It is paramount that Richmond residents do not face housing insecurity during this pandemic,” Mayor Stoney stated. “We want to make sure the city is doing everything it can to empower residents.”

The city Office of Community Wealth Building is to administer the $6 million through Emergency Fund Assistance-RVA, which is being created by the office and expected to be in operation by next Monday, according to Sharon Ebert, city deputy chief administrative officer for economic and community development.

The money will be distributed through ACTS, Area Congregations Together in Service, whose motto is “closing the door on homelessness.” ACTS, which began operating in 2006, is to manage the EFA-RVA, Ms. Ebert stated.

The fund will help income-eligible households with rental assistance or mortgage payments. In some cases, the program could pay off several months of unpaid housing bills, she stated, noting that decisions would be on made on a case-by-case basis.

The EFA-RVA is part of a new state-wide program, with Richmond’s program expected to be eligible for a portion of the state funds.

However, Ms. Ebert noted that many of the families facing eviction “will not be eligible” for help because landlords already had filed a court action for nonpayment prior to March 31 and the federal funding can be used only for those who could not pay beginning April 1.

Of the 1,900 eviction cases on the court dockets in Richmond, at least 950 and possibly more would not qualify for assistance from the new fund, Ms. Ebert stated.

Another smaller city program, eviction diversion, which Housing Opportunities Made Equal administers, might help some of those ineligible families if their landlords agree. That program seeks to set up payment plans for tenants who are in arrears and are able to keep current while also paying off the past due rent over several months.