State still has $788M available to help families facing eviction

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 8/5/2021, 6 p.m.
Confronted by the prospect of a flood of evictions, President Biden’s administration acted Tuesday to of- fer temporary relief that …
Mr. Wegbreit

Confronted by the prospect of a flood of evictions, President Biden’s administration acted Tuesday to offer temporary relief that will impact struggling renters facing ouster for overdue payments, including those in Richmond and most of Central Virginia.

Just days after a federal eviction moratorium expired on July 31, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention installed a more targeted eviction ban designed to aid renters whose finances have been upended by the pandemic or resulted in major medical bills.

The new moratorium is to last to Sunday, Oct. 3, unless the courts strike it down, and is only good in areas where data show rates of infection from COVID-19 are high and surging.

Landlord groups are expected to challenge the new CDC declaration, based on their previous success in getting the U.S. Supreme Court to terminate the last CDC moratorium.

The new CDC declaration appears to cover about 80 percent of the country and was issued at a time when U.S. Census and other data have projected that 3 million to 7 million rental households are behind on rent and at risk of eviction. That’s up to 16 percent of the nation’s 43 million households that live in rentals.

In Richmond alone, projections indicate that 5,000 to 9,300 households are at risk of losing their residences for nonpayment.

According to Martin Wegbreit, director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society whose legal staff represents low-income clients on housing issues, the city of Richmond, the counties of Chester- field, Hanover and Henrico and much of the rest of Central Virginia are included in the CDC’s eviction protection areas based on COVID-19 caseloads.

The CDC declaration covers couples making less than $200,000 a year and individuals making less than $99,000 a year or anyone who received a stimulus check and is at risk of becoming homeless if an eviction proceeds.

Still, Mr. Wegbreit noted that the CDC action can only do so much.

“This is not a moratorium on evictions,” he said. “It is a CDC eviction protection for tenants behind on rent due to lost income who give their landlords the CDC declaration.”

He noted that evictions can and are still going forward for “those who do not know about or use the CDC declaration,

because the lease was not renewed” or for other reasons unrelated to household finances.

In Richmond this week, court dockets showed landlords were seeking orders to evict 129 families. Mr. Wegbreit said before the pandemic, the court docket might list 350 cases a week.

The current list of cases, though, is up from the same week last year when the pandemic was in full flower, he said.

“In short, eviction filings are significantly increasing above what they were during 2020, but remain substantially below pre-pandemic levels.”

Mr. Wegbreit said that tenants, as well as landlords, need to focus on the solution as much as the problem.

“The solution is Virginia’s Rent Relief Program, which is the best in the nation,” he said. It is operated by the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which takes application for rental aid online at www.dhcd.virginia.gov/rrp.

According to the agency, the program has distributed about $312 million to 48,154 tenants, or an average of nearly $6,500 per household to pay off rent arrearages dating back 18 months.

Mr. Wegbreit noted that the state agency still has about $788 million left to spend that would go into landlords’ pockets and leave more renters in a more stable situation.

The Virginia funding is part of the $46 billion the federal government has distributed to states through the federal CARES Act and American Rescue Plan to reduce eviction prospects for millions of people here and across the country.

Mr. Wegbreit said the program is available to households whose income is at or below 80 percent of the area median income, around $58,000 for a family of four, and who live in apartments with rents that are no more than 150 percent of fair market rate, now above $1,100 a month for a single bedroom unit in Richmond.

The program can pay up to 18 months of arrearage once the rent and income are verified, he said. Landlords should cooperate and help tenants file to mitigate their losses, including the cost they face to evict, he said.

Patrick McCloud, chief executive officer of the Virginia Apartment Management Association, said landlords have faced their own challenges in dealing with the pandemic, including paying loans on their properties.

The idea that most landlords would rush to evict when there is a program that could enable them to secure back rent is a misconception, he said.

He said most landlords understand that the eviction process is far more arduous than working with a tenant applying for relief.

While the state has dropped any ban on evictions, he and others noted landlords also can face substantial delays.

For example, at least through September, the state is requiring courts to grant a 60-day continuance for an eviction proceeding when a tenant can demonstrate that their failure to pay was due to the effects COVID-19.

And pushing eviction is not financially rewarding, Mr. McCloud said.

“If I evict the resident, I’m never going to see that money.”