Mayor Levar Stoney coins a drizzly afternoon a “celebration of hopefully many celebrations to come,” as he updates the public on the progress of the city’s Eviction Diversion Program at the Main Branch of the Richmond Public Library on Tuesday.
In its first three months of being on its feet, the initiative has helped 76 people avoid eviction -- a number that reflects more than 25% of the goal of assisting 300-500 similarly situated Richmonders by the end of the year. Additionally, the mayor says the program has provided financial literacy education to more than one-third of the goal of 300 tenants.
“Housing is a vaccine for poverty,” Stoney says. “When I ran for mayor, the poverty rate in this city was 26% — it’s since dropped to 21.9% but we believe that is still too damn high.”
The program, which Stoney announced last year during his annual State of the City address, is a partnership between the city, the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, Housing Opportunities Made Equal, known as HOME, and the city’s courts system to help tenants avoid an eviction judgement while also making landlords whole on missed rent payments.
The announcement follows an April 2018 front-page Sunday New York Times article highlighting the scope of the problem plaguing the River City and Commonwealth: Virginia notched five of the top 10 highest eviction rates in the U.S. among large cities, according to the 2016 Princeton EvictionLab study with Richmond (11.44%), Hampton (10.49%) and Newport News (10.23%) ranking second, third and fourth respectively nationwide.
“Eviction is everybody’s problem, not those who find a notice on their front door. It keeps children out of school and displaces families,” says Monica Jefferson, the vice president and chief operating officer at Housing Opportunities Made Equal, which is the program administrator for the city partnership. “Eviction poses immediate risk of homelessness and loss of personal property. A judgement, a possession or even a filing of an eviction lawsuit makes it much harder for a family to rent in their community.”
From the program’s launch in October through the end of December, the program has received an average of 16 calls per day, with the overwhelming majority -- 93% -- being African American and 80% female tenants facing eviction. Fifty-seven percent of tenants are families with children.
In November the mayor’s office announced the creation of the City of Richmond Eviction Task Force composed of experts in five subcommittees acting in an advisory capacity to the diversion program. The task force met once in December and will hold its next public meeting Jan. 14.
Jefferson notes that due to an eviction judgement remaining on a tenant’s record for 10 years, it often makes families or individuals ineligible for other housing programs and evicted families invariably move into poorer quality neighborhoods and houses.
Through the use of pro bono lawyers acting as mediators in court, tenants are given a “one-time assist” and get the benefit of a clean slate as well as financial literacy education to help solve debt problems. Meanwhile the landlord is made whole through conciliated payment plans.
“For many of the working poor here in Richmond … a financial emergency can suddenly plunge them into homelessness,” Jefferson says.
To date, 27 tenants have entered into conciliated payment plans and 49 are participating in a partnership initiative with the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which announced a freeze on eviction notices for nonpayment of rents in November after issuing 89 judgements. The freeze is in effect through the end of this month.
“HOME has partnered with RRHA through a memorandum of understanding outside our current program guidelines going into the RRHA’s big six communities, as well as Fulton and Faye,” Jefferson says on Tuesday. “We’re in constant communication with them. When the freeze took effect there were 89 judgements, so 49 of 89 is more than half.”
Sean Johnson was one of the 76 people who avoided eviction through the help of the program after reading about it in the Richmond Free Press.
“I had a financial hardship where I didn’t get paid for two months,” Johnson explains. “The day they were getting ready to evict me, [Housing Opportunities Made Equal] was there with the check and it was a blessing.”
Such a compressed time frame is not uncommon and is also what has deterred some landlords from entering into agreements, however, with many of the diversions happening directly in the courtroom, explained Ali Fanon with the Greater Richmond Bar Association.
“Every day the volunteers we’ve recruited go to court with one of these green badges [...] and are approached by anywhere from one to 15 people every day,” Fanon says.
“They talk to tenants at their most stressful times and then we go talk to the landlords’ representatives, the attorneys … no one in court really wants to be part of the eviction process.”
The director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, Marty Wegbreit, notes that about 80% of landlords have been in favor of the diversion process “which is a pretty big success rate for a program that’s the first in the Commonwealth.”
“When the volunteer conciliators work their magic — that ‘scarlet E’ that’s a barrier to renting in the future is gone,” Wegbreit says. “The Eviction Diversion Program tries not to ruin a person’s life just because they had a bad day. This gives people that deserve a second chance to stay in the home and make the landlord whole.”
Fanon notes there are 20 “extremely active volunteers” from area law firms, but “this is a plea to the legal community to get involved” as the program dives into its second quarter. “Landlords are getting paid and don’t have to go through the process of evicting someone and finding a new tenant so it’s really a win-win,” Fanon says. “Some days there are 20 evictions -- some days there are 200 [on the docket].”
There is certainly no shortage of lawsuits: More than 30% of renters in Richmond receive a notice of eviction in any given year. Cose to 18,000 are filed by landlords annually with an average of 11,000 leading to evictions. The issue is not confined to the Richmond, either.
“Cities from across this country who have called us and said even before we got this off the ground to say ‘how are you going to get this done?’” Stoney says.
The eviction diversion program is setting a model for the state as a new legislative session gears up. In 2019 the House of Delegates passed a pilot program the diverts tenants from eviction in set to take effect July 1 in Danville, Hampton, Petersburg and Richmond.
Wegbreit at the Legal Aid Society was hopeful Tuesday that as the city’s program continues to expand that it would be better funded “next year and the year after that and the year after that.”
The mayor, too, was unabashed in voicing his expectations for the future.
“We have much more work to do but I’m confident with this team,” Stoney said. “I told them, ‘You find the best solution possible and leave the funding to the politicians.’”