What About Those Folks Facing Eviction, Governor?

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

In his July 24 letter to the Chief Justice, the Governor requested the Supreme Court extend its moratorium on evictions.  He concluded his request by saying, “This [the moratorium] will provide my administration the time to both work with the General Assembly to develop and pass a legislative package that will provide additional relief to those facing eviction and to expand financial assistance for tenants through our rent relief program.”

So, now that the General Assembly is in session, what has the Governor done for those who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and are facing eviction? The answer is: (1) some help in delaying evictions and (2) no help, so far, in getting the money needed to pay the rent.

Moratorium extension. A provision in the introduced budget bill (see here, page 241), would impose a moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent until April 30, 2021. If the tenant has experienced financial hardship due to the COVID-19 public health emergency, the landlord must provide the tenant an opportunity to enter into a payment plan in which the arrearages are amortized over 12 months, with no late fees. (If less than 12 months remain on the lease agreement, the back due amounts would be amortized over the remainder of the lease.) Furthermore, the landlord must cooperate in the tenant’s “efforts to secure rental assistance funds or other subsidies or benefits that could pay down or retire the COVID-19 arrearage.”

If the tenant does not comply with the terms of the payment plan, the landlord can proceed with eviction. If the tenant refuses to enter into a payment plan, the landlord could terminate the tenancy and take action to evict the tenant if the landlord (i) made a reasonable effort to enter into a payment plan and (ii) made reasonable efforts to “secure rental assistance funds or other subsidies or benefits that could pay down or retire the arrearage.”

The language goes on to say that the landlord is allowed to file unlawful detainer orders in court while the tenant is participating in a payment plan.

For a situation in which the tenant is working and just decides he does not want to pay his rent for a while, the language is not clear. The first paragraph flatly imposes a moratorium on evictions. Subsequent paragraphs seem to condition the eviction prohibition on financial hardship created by the pandemic. In any event, the language could provide freeloaders and deadbeats with extra time to stay in the rented space without ultimately paying.

Financial help. A temporary moratorium on eviction and a payment plan to spread out the back due amounts will be helpful to those folks who were laid off from their jobs temporarily, are now back working, and need some breathing room to catch up. Those provisions really do not help those who are still out of work, have seen their federal supplemental unemployment insurance benefit lapse, and cannot afford to make the current rent payment, much less begin to pay off the back due amounts. And the Governor has not proposed any additional help to these people, so far. Apparently, the administration is still trying to decide whether to participate in the President’s proffered plan for supplemental unemployment insurance. Another option would be to devote more federal CARES funding to its newly-launched Rent and Mortgage Relief Program.

In his recent address to the General Assembly, the Governor stated his introduced budget includes “$88 million to combat evictions and expand affordable housing.” That is misleading. There is $85 million designated for the Housing Trust Fund, which makes grants to entities to construct affordable housing and also provides support for homeless persons.

The attempt to use some of this funding to help those actually facing eviction is a mess. The 2019 General Assembly established an Eviction Prevention and Diversion Pilot program to be administered by local courts in four cities. That program just went into effect on July 1 of this year. Rather than wait to learn how that program works or even to build upon it, the Governor has proposed $3.3 million in the first year only to “establish a competitive Eviction Prevention and Diversion Pilot Program that will support local or regional eviction prevention and diversion programs that utilize a systems approach with linkages to local departments of social services and legal aid resources.” That program would be administered by the Department of Housing and Community Development.

First of all, such a bureaucratic program will probably end up providing only a relatively small amount of money for actual people facing eviction. Second, experience has shown that pilot programs that are funded only for one year are doomed to failure. Finally, the court-administered pilot eviction prevention and diversion program and, presumably, the one proposed by the Governor, rely on the establishment of payment plans. That is the approach taken in the Governor’s proposed moratorium. One wonders why the state would need both the moratorium and two different eviction prevention and diversion programs.  That is a lot of redundancy and overlap.

Avenue not pursued. If the Governor’s goal were to decrease evictions, it would have been more effective for him to have spread that $3.3 million over both years to hire more lawyers to represent poor people facing eviction. In states and cities in which tenants were provided access to an attorney, evictions declined significantly. (See here and here.) A recent article in the Henrico Citizen, a community newspaper, demonstrated the value of an attorney in eviction proceedings. A pair of Legal Aid attorneys spoke up for a group of tenants from a local housing community who were on the eviction docket for that day. Because the housing community had utilized federal related financing, the CARES Act prohibited evictions. Apparently the judge was unaware of the CARES Act provisions. After hearing the lawyers and researching the law, he dismissed the cases.

The 2020 General Assembly provided an additional $1.5 million for each year of the biennium to hire more attorneys to add to those hired with a new appropriation in the 2019 budget  Instead of following up on that approach, which would have provided direct help to folks facing evictions, the administration chose to take that money and go with an unproven program that promises to be comprised of significant bureaucracy, will take a long time to get up and running, and will likely prove to be of little value to people facing eviction.

I blame the Governor for depending too much on his policy office for these shortsighted proposals. That office is comprised of staff with little direct experience in state government and who are focused primarily on the political aspects of issues. They are loath to seek advice and recommendations from staff in agencies such as the Department of Planning and Budget, who are much closer to agency programs, understand how they operate, and know their history.

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29 responses to “What About Those Folks Facing Eviction, Governor?

  1. https://richmond.com/news/virginia/ap/virginia-senate-puts-off-vote-on-eviction-moratorium/article_33469708-9f1a-5ffb-a030-3a8a97955a33.html

    The Senate, which is working diligently while the House of Delegates dithers, doesn’t seem ready for a major effort. There is a House bill, but who knows when or if that will come up.

    What the state must do rapidly is decide if it will implement, flawed as it is, the new method of providing an enhanced unemployment benefit. Is Northam delaying for political gain? Hope that Congress will compromise? Another $1600 a month tax free is a nice boost, and in line with previous recessions that had enhanced benefits.

    It’s a sticky issue. I may write about the much deeper and wider issue with electricity bills, as the RTD had story there, too. Nobody is willing to relieve the debtors, but rather is talking about long and delayed payment plans. But creating an entitlement for rent and utility payments on top and in addition to the existing support programs will be tough. Once done it is hard to undo.

    The sign on my door as chief administrator of a state agency said: “If If Do This For You, I Must Do This For Everybody.” (My personnel director produced it for me in Latin. It was better than the sign put up by the next DoA which read, “Nobody Gets To See The Wizard, No Way No How.”)

  2. Thank you. What Dick has demonstrated here is that it’s entirely possible to write an article critical of Northam without using words like “woke” ,”virtue signaling”,”wise king” or “blackface”

    The criticism was not only on-target, it actually brought up possible alternatives as well as questions about the intent of the policy efforts.

    Perhaps Dick can encourage other posters to follow his lead.

    • 1) I watch the readership stats closely. I hope you are right, but the anger and outrage pieces zoom through the cyber universe…..and 2) the anonymous troll brigade unfortunately is setting the tone. I remain highly interested in people using their names.

      I will add 3. In the past few days Dick, Jim and I have all produced copy which in effect was breaking news, Jim in particular. We’ve been down this road, and if the leftist thought police at VPAP would let our copy on that daily compilation, Jim and I would write things commentary free, certainly as commentary free as you find on Virginia Mercury (which ain’t totally free). But as there is a double standard and we are banished, so we slip into take no prisoner mode…..

      So far this new effort from John Fredericks does not impress. I will give it more time. Just Fox News in a new package (in fact, Fox is more balanced.)

    • Poor Larry. Always the first to complain about the “conservative echo chamber” but oh so offended by terms like “woke” and “virtue signaling”. Typical liberal logic. The “blackface” commentary comes from a photograph of our governor as an adult in his twenties attending a party in blackface in 1984. He is accompanied by a friend in klan robes and he thought so highly of the photo he submitted it as his desired entry for his personal yearbook page. But nobody should mention that because … well, because he’s a Democrat I guess. Now Poor Larry has to deal with a Democratic presidential candidate who publicly worried that de-segregation and busing would cause his kids to grow up in a racial jungle. He made that comment not in 1957 or even 1967 but 1977. The same year I graduated from a fully integrated high school without so much as a second thought.

      Larry wonders how systemic racism can still exist in America and in Virginia while serving as an apologist for racists that were perpetuating their racism long after right minded people (both liberal and conservative) had embraced concepts of equality.

      What should have ended no later than the 1950s and 1960s was extended through the 1970s and 1980s by racists like Joe Biden and Ralph Northam. Asshats like the two of them set back America’s search for racial equality by decades.

      Meanwhile, Virginia’s elected Democrats (and Republicans) walk, without so much as a second thought, past a statue honoring the architect of Massive Resistance on Capitol Square erected in 1976. Harry F Byrd was the face of segregation in Virginia. Yet the woke, virtue signaling modern liberals in our General Assembly have no issue with that statue.

      Sorry Larry but neither Ralph Northam nor Sleepy Joe gets to wave away their adult racism from the 70s and 80s whether modern day liberals like it or not.

      • geeze… keep looking back guy. There is more than enough shame to go all around – the question is what are we doing now and going forward. We know why some keep looking back don’t we?

        I’m asking, RIGHT NOW – do Black folks have it right about their views on racism ?

        We have white guys looking at polls where black folks say they feel there is still racism – and the white guys are saying “that’s just your opinion”!

        They’s totally separate from the pejorative vernacular of the right these days… they can’t seem to get a sentence out anymore without “woke” or “virtue signaling” or “leftists”… such a command of the language!

        • “I’m asking, RIGHT NOW – do Black folks have it right about their views on racism ?”

          As long as The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond continues to allow the statue of Harry F Byrd to stand on honored public ground … yes, Black folks are right. A state government that honors a racist and segregationist with a modern day statue on the grounds of the Capitol is practicing a form of systemic racism.

        • Larry,

          Once again, by DEFINITION, a poll collects opinions. Is there some part of that concept which you cannot grasp?

          And please answer my question – do not read anything into my statement of pure fact, and do not change the subject.

          • repeat your question.

            Polls, opinions, viewpoints matter.

            When white folks say IN THEIR OPINION there is no racism and black folks say IN THEIR OPINION there is – how do we reconcile that in terms of policies, elections, behaviors, actions?

            You seem to think opinions are just opinions and nothing more. no?

          • Never engage with Larry. He will exhaust you with circular logic.

  3. “Furthermore, the landlord must cooperate in the tenant’s “efforts to secure rental assistance funds or other subsidies or benefits that could pay down or retire the COVID-19 arrearage.””

    Check it out! Slavery is returning to Virginia.

  4. A week or two I asked the question: With so much relief money sloshing around, how come so many people are falling behind on their rent? In particular, I cited Virginia’s state-run, CARES Act-funded $50 million relief fund as a source of assistance. After reading Dick’s story, I’m guessing that administrative incompetence is an issue. It’s one thing to allocate dollars and announce a program, another to set it up and make it work. I wonder how much money out of that fund has been paid out so far to tenants falling behind on their rent.

    • I listened in on the budget briefing. The question came up, how is that rental assistance program going? “We’ll have to get back to you was the answer,” I think from Layne. Hey, that was a question they were going to get and should have been ready for. Remember: $1.3 billion in unused federal COVID money, and not all the allocated money will be spent as directed….they have cash.

    • Maybe. Or maybe if Northam decided that speeding tickets issues in 2020 wouldn’t have to be paid until sometime in 2021 more people would speed. My son rents a house he owns in Tennessee to a couple. Both are lawyer. Both kept their jobs through the pandemic. He called his lawyer to ask about his rights as a landlord. The lawyer advised that he should be ready to negotiate on the rent given the current situation. Fortunately the couple is ethical and have continued to pay the rent.

      If I were still in college with money being tight and I couldn’t be evicted for failure to pay the rent I’d probably fail to pay the rent. I might let the balance build up and then try to negotiate a 75% payout once evictions started up again.

      When the state decides to temporarily void the legal process for enforcing rental contracts it tacitly agrees letting people forgo paying rent. Savvy renters who put their money into Apple stock would be able to sell that stock, pay the back rent (without penalty) and pocket a tidy profit.

  5. probably woke virtue signaling on steroids, no?

  6. I’m flummoxed. I thought Trump said he was going to fix this, right?

    Now if Trump says it’s wrong to evict people – why are we attacking Northam for agreeing?

    • I highly doubt a President can do anything at the state level besides lobby Congress to send some cash. I mean that would violate Federalism defined in the 10th Amendment.

      • Trump’s EO is so watered down on that it became clear he had no authority. Not sure how they convinced him….

        • He didn’t know any better? Look who we are talking about, haha. I can’t recall the last POTUS we had that understood where their powers were limited.

          Rule via EO is a problem from the top down and everyone is guilty. I think that comes from the legislature divesting itself in it’s duties so it can’t be held accountable. All the while the Executive branches Federal and State have absorbed that abdicated power.

          • “I can’t recall the last POTUS we had that understood where their powers were limited.”

            Calvin Coolidge?

          • Probably, though my father was named for him. He was a hair before my time, but his policy are spot on with my beliefs.

  7. Who the hell cares about VPAP? It’s really run by lobbyists as a deal to avoid having a true ethics commission.

    • BR readership is improving. It means less than it did a year or longer ago. But the VPAP daily “clips” is still the standard go to for everybody following VA government, back to when it was the Whipple Report. It’s a big stage with a packed house, and we don’t hide our copy behind a paywall.

  8. Are you the new editor?

  9. Of course!

  10. Dick, you did a great job on this piece.

    My only quibble is your reference to using tax money to hire lawyers to defend tenants who do not pay the rent.

    “If the Governor’s goal were to decrease evictions, it would have been more effective for him to have spread that $3.3 million over both years to hire more lawyers to represent poor people facing eviction.”

    Is it an impossible concept in Richmond to use that same money to actually pay the rent as a loan to the tenants? And actually get some of it back?

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