Housing is a vaccine for poverty, by Mayor Levar Stoney

2/9/2023, noon
When I was growing up in Hampton Roads, we lived paycheck to paycheck. My father regularly stated we were just ...

When I was growing up in Hampton Roads, we lived pay- check to paycheck. My father regularly stated we were just one missed paycheck, one missed rent payment from potentially losing our home.

As the son of a custodian, I know how hard it was for my father to ensure we kept a roof over our heads. If it wasn’t for my grandmother’s Social Security check, who knows what could have happened to us.

So I took it personally when in 2018, the City of Richmond and four other Virginia localities made national headlines as being among the top 10 in the nation for evictions. I knew we had to act to provide support to our families. So, my team and I brought together local housing experts and we created the Richmond Eviction Diversion Program (EDP) — the first in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Our EDP partners, Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) and the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society (CVLAS), have helped 1,500 households since its inception, and this year the City increased funding for the EDP by 50 percent in the Fiscal Year 2023 budget.

But, with the recent expiration of the federal and state eviction moratoriums, termination of eviction protections, such as allowing tenants until the 14th day of each month to pay rent, and the end of pandemic-era rent relief from the state, we are unfortunately seeing a rise in residents receiving lease enforcement notices, summons for unlawful detainers, or writs of evictions due to non-payment.

The collective housing challenges tenants (and yes, even some landlords) face to meet their financial obligations require us to seek solutions rooted in compassion, understanding, and equity. The scales must be balanced.

First, it is imperative to acknowledge that the reprieve for those living on the margins is limited and now there is a bottleneck effect materializing — reduced or loss of wages coupled with health-related issues, inflated costs for goods and services, and increased housing costs. Statistics show that rent increases in Richmond last year outpaced inflation.

In addition to this change to the economic landscape, a recent report by Drexel University’s Nowak Metro Finance Lab, co-published by Accelerator for America, identified out-of-state investor home purchases as a rising threat to owners and renters. Sadly, we also are seeing this trend in the City of Richmond, with new data from the RVA Eviction Lab reporting that such LLCs accounted for just under 87 percent of evictions.

We can’t forget that there are lives behind these devastating numbers. The structure of LLCs makes it easy to disregard the real-life consequences for individual and family tenants when the landlord is a faceless out-of-state evictor. Additionally, the nominal cost of filing an unlawful detainer makes it relatively easy for a landlord to file an eviction.

In Virginia, filing an unlawful detainer for one household can cost anywhere from $52 to $129. Based on these numbers, it may cost a Richmonder more to submit a housing application than it does to evict someone. The Commonwealth of Virginia must address this inequity to ensure our families do not end up unhoused.

Renters with housing choice vouchers are also experiencing challenges obtaining stable housing. Here it’s important to remember that Delegate Jeff Bourne’s HB 6, which took effectin 2020, protects against housing discrimination based on your income status. Not only is it the duty of the Attorney General of the Commonwealth to enforce state consumer protections laws, but also to protect against discrimination in all of its forms, including housing.

Local governments cannot solve their housing and eviction challenges without more resources and local authority — such as the ability to provide tax relief based on income or create mandatory rental registries. Housing is a vaccine for poverty — it is the foundation upon which stable, healthy and successful lives depend. It is time we balance the scales by working together to protect our families and help them stay in their homes.

If you need help, we ask that you please utilize Help1RVA.org to locate available resources.

The writer is the mayor of Richmond.