Rental housing for the poorest and most vulnerable families in Richmond should be the most stable with the fewest evictions. Unfortunately, exactly the opposite is true. Earlier this year, a list of all eviction lawsuits filed in 2017 and 2018 by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority was obtained from Ben Schoenfeld’s Virginia Court Data project. RVA Eviction Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University took this data and eliminated duplicate filings. It calculated the eviction judgment rates by dividing the number of judgments by the number of units in each public housing community.
In each of these two years, eviction judgment rates in four of the big six public housing communities — Fairfield, Gilpin, Mosby and Whitcomb courts — were more than double Richmond’s citywide rate of 11.44 percent. At Hillside Court, the rate was almost four times greater. Only Creighton Court was slightly below the citywide rate.
Every eviction judgment is a scar on a tenant’s court record that remains for 10 years, even if the tenant is never physically evicted by the sheriff. The judgment becomes a barrier to future rentals. These judgments trap our neediest families in a cycle of poverty they cannot escape.
The Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, the Legal Aid Justice Center and the Virginia Poverty Law Center thought that was unacceptable. With grant funding from Equal Justice Works, a nonprofit public interest group in Washington, these organizations formed the Virginia Housing Justice Program. In early July, the group met in person with the housing authority. We presented nine proven eviction reduction proposals. A week later, we put these concepts in writing to the authority. We got little or no response to these ideas.
Instead, the housing authority started working in the opposite direction. In little more than a month from Sept. 26 to Oct. 28, it filed an astonishing 295 eviction lawsuits. This was almost triple the normal monthly rate. Of the 89 cases that went to judgment before the authority’s Nov. 8 eviction freeze, 60 were for less than $300 in rent and 40 were for less than $200 in rent. No one should lose a home owing less rent than the price of a pair of low-cost running shoes.
The justice program appreciates the authority’s freeze on evictions for the rest of 2019. This will create an opportunity for all of us to work together to develop policies and procedures to reduce the eviction rates and “to bring every RRHA family with a delinquent rental account as close to good standing as possible” as stated in the authority’s news release announcing the freeze.
As welcome as it is, the freeze raises many troubling issues. The authority felt the need to spend $15,340 in court fees to file the 295 eviction lawsuits after being presented with tested successful alternatives to evictions. These approaches reduce eviction lawsuits and judgments, and collect more rent, but the authority made little or no progress towards using them.
In its nonpayment notices and lawsuits, the authority did not inform tenants facing eviction due to owing minimum rent of their right to ask for a hardship exemption that would avoid eviction. The authority has not applied tenant payments to rent first, and other charges second, which also would reduce evictions. It did not offer payment plans in nonpayment notices, and instead proceeded to eviction lawsuits at the first sign of a rent shortfall. The authority filed eviction lawsuits for rental balances for as little as $50. It continued to be a leader in evictions, rather than becoming a leader in eviction reduction.Almost $60 million in federal and city funds support the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. As financial backers of the authority, the public deserves resolution of these troubling issues.
Martin Wegbreit is director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society and a member of Mayor Levar Stoney’s recently appointed Task Force on Evictions. He is also a member of Richmond’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund oversight board, the steering committee of the Campaign to Reduce Evictions, the legal advisory board of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, and the Virginia State Bar’s special committee on access to legal services.
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