General Assembly Acts to Curb Evictions

by Richard Hall-Sizemore

Virginia has made another “top-10 in the nation” list. But this one is not one to be celebrated. Last spring, using national eviction data, researchers at Princeton University released eviction rate rankings of large cities in the United States. Cities in Virginia comprised five of the ten cities with the highest eviction rates. Those were Richmond (2), Hampton (3), Newport News (4), Norfolk (6), and Chesapeake (10). By going down a little further on the list to no. 15, one would find a sixth Virginia city, Virginia Beach.

These findings sparked a flurry of activity and commentary in the Richmond area, including Bacon’s Rebellion. The Center for Urban and Regional Analysis of VCU’s Wilder School set up a program, RVA Eviction Lab, similar to the Princeton program that produced the national report, to examine issues related to eviction in Richmond and has recently released a series of reports.

Perhaps most significantly, the General Assembly and the Governor have swung into action. Shortly after the Princeton report was issued, the Virginia Housing Commission took up the issue. The Housing Commission is one of those permanent legislative bodies established by the Code of Virginia for examination of specific areas. Its membership is drawn from both houses of the General Assembly. The commission recommended legislation dealing with about six primary issues. Those bills were introduced in both houses with a bipartisan set of chief patrons. So far, most of the bills have encountered no opposition, having been passed unanimously by the original houses in either their original or amended forms.

Because I know nothing about landlord/tenant law, I am not going to venture any analysis or opinion on most of the bills. However, one of them is not that technical and is probably the one of most interest. It would establish pilot eviction diversion dockets in the courts in Danville, Hampton, Petersburg, and Richmond. (HB 2655 and SB 1450). (This is the program that was the subject of Jim’s earlier piece in BR.) The goal of the pilot programs would be “to reduce the number of evictions of low-income persons.” As originally introduced, the bills were projected to have a fiscal impact, with the courts needing additional appropriation to implement the programs. However, a substitute bill for SB 1450 has been reported out of committee and the courts now feel it can be implemented without additional funding.

As for the Governor, he included $2.6 million in his introduced budget for FY 2020 to hire additional legal aid attorneys to provide assistance to people facing eviction. Experience has shown that evictions can be reduced when tenants are aware of their legal rights and have legal representation. The availability of an attorney would be helpful especially in situations in which the eviction is in retaliation for the tenant complaining about unsafe or unhealthy conditions or inoperable equipment such as heating or plumbing. The amount proposed by the Governor would be sufficient to hire an additional attorney in each Legal Aid office in the state.

An eviction often leads to homelessness. And homelessness is related to a myriad of social ills. Although these steps will not get at the root causes behind most evictions—low incomes and shortages of decent, affordable housing—they could enable a significant number of people to stay in their homes while they try to improve their lives, without infringing greatly upon the rights of property owners.

Richard W. Hall-Sizemore recently retired from a position in the Department of Planning and Budget.

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4 responses to “General Assembly Acts to Curb Evictions

  1. Good article, thank you!

    I’m curious how Virginia got here. Were laws “bad” all over and other states changed – for the better and Virginia is now catching up?

    Or is this because Virginia is turning more blue and there are more bleeding hearts running amok now?

    or what?

  2. 16 of the top 20 cities are in the South. My hunch is that the Good Ole Boys and Girls in Dixie put more stock in landowner rights than tenant rights. I’d also urge caution regarding any analysis of Virginia “cities”. Virginia doesn’t have much in the way of real cities. This is a conscious result of the continuing rural centric Byrd Machine logic perpetuated in the state – especially by the RPV. The RPV and the last vestiges of the Byrd Machine should both die this November but we are where we are for now.

    Of the 769 US cities with populations over 50,000, Virginia has 13. Even with that, several of the “cities” are actually counties who took city charters to try to get the General Assembly somewhat off their backs (ex: Virginia Beach). Even if you count the “county cities” only 2.1m Virginians live in cities with over 50,000 people. That’s less than 25% of the population. If you eliminate the “county cities” of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake the population drops to 1.4m or 16% of the population.

    However, Arlington County would be the fourth largest city (by population) and would be the second most densely populated city. Fairfax County would be (by far) the largest Virginia city and would be the 6th most densely populated.

    Does Virginia have an eviction problem? Who knows? However, it would certainly be good to look at state-wide statistics before the Nanny State in Richmond starts passing lots of new laws.

    • According to the map on the Princeton site, on a state-wide basis, Virginia had the second-highest eviction rate in the country, behind South Carolina and just a tad higher than Delaware.

  3. It’s been decades since I represented some tenants through the University of Minnesota Law School’s legal aid clinic. As I recall, I had one client who lived in a building where the landlord was amiss on its responsibilities under state law. I believe the judge ordered the landlord to make the fixes and then the tenant had to pay all the back rent. We didn’t take a couple other of the people I interviewed as they just didn’t pay the rent and couldn’t demonstrate any breach by the landlord. Not much one can argue to a judge in those instances.

    It’s good for all parties to know their rights and responsibilities. Whether each lives up to them is another story.

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