Henrico County man fighting eviction will soon have his day in court

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 7/7/2022, 6 p.m.
Donald J. Garrett could find out within a week whether he will keep the Eastern Henrico apartment he has lived …
Mr. Garrett

Donald J. Garrett could find out within a week whether he will keep the Eastern Henrico apartment he has lived in since 2011.

The disabled 69-year-old is being sued by his landlord, the Pointe at River City apartments, which claims he owes more than $1,300 that remains unpaid, which he denies.

The company has gone to Henrico General District Court seeking to evict him, and a hearing is now set in his case for Friday, July 15.

Mr. Garrett is not alone. According to the Virginia Poverty Law Center, the Pointe, a complex of more than 700 units located on Laburnum Avenue near Nine Mile Road, is seeking to evict 237 households or about one-third of the occupied units.

At a time when much of the attention involving evictions has focused on the public housing units that Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority manages, private complexes are starting to rev up their ouster of tenants who are behind on rent now that a state rental relief program has run out of money.

Also expired are laws that for the past two years have put more limitations on landlords. Now, the eviction process can be started if rent is more than five days overdue, and apartment owners and managers also no longer have to help tenants find resources to cover rent.

Martin Weigbreit, director of litigation for the Richmond office of the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, estimates that 2,400 eviction cases will be heard in courts in Central Virginia through mid-July with more to come.

Mr. Garrett can’t understand why he is a target.

“I’ve always paid my rent on time,” he insists.

He even signed a new one-year lease in April to continue living in his two-bedroom unit at 623 N. Laburnum Ave. Based on income, his lease sets his rent at $863 a month, or more than $300 a month less than the market rent that the Pointe complex advertises on its web pages.

However, the court summons obtained by AP 11 North LLC, the listed owner of the complex, seeks to terminate that lease. The summons Mr. Garrett received recites the company’s claim for $1,347.86 in back rent, costs and attorney’s fees.

Mr. Garrett said he is ready to battle in court on July 15.

With help from the Virginia Poverty Law Center, he has secured pro bono representation from Lonnie D. “Chip” Nunley III, a partner in Hunton Andrews Kurth, one of the state’s largest law firms.

Mr. Garrett said that representation supports his belief that he may avoid being ousted.

At this moment, the Pointe is far surpassing RRHA in its eviction efforts.

According to Mr. Wegbreit, RRHA, which has reported hundreds of tenants behind in rent, has only filed nine eviction cases, all in Hillside Court, since mid-May.

Mr. Wegbreit suggested that a requirement that RRHA provide 30-day notices to tenants in arrears “probably accounts for the small number of eviction cases thus far.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Wegbreit and his legal team are battling owners’ efforts to shutter Grace Place Apartments at 4th and Grace streets in Downtown, an affordable complex with dozens of tenants.

Grace Place began in May trying to shut down the four-story apartment house because of losing money, only to back off after Legal Aid got involved and advised tenants their leases were still valid.

The owners tried again, issuing new notices that leases would terminate Friday, but Mr. Wegbreit said Legal Aid also has attacked that effort.

“There is no legal authority which says that (operating at a loss) is good cause for lease termination or eviction,” which was financed with low-income housing tax credits, he said.

Mr. Wegbreit said his office secured a court order last week to prevent the apartment owners from continuing an extra-judicial campaign to “coerce, intimidate and pressure tenants to leave” before their lease expires.

He said his agency is prepared to continue to defend the rights of tenants who are paying as agreed to continue to occupy their apartments.