EXPLAINER: How Virginia is helping tenants with rental aid

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire Saturday, after President Joe Biden’s administration extended the original date by a month. The moratorium, put in place by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on their rent.

Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access nearly $47 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.

Advocates for tenants said the distribution of the money had been slow and that more time was needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who were behind on their rents.

Even with the delay, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. as of July 5 said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.

Here’s the situation in Virginia:

WHAT’S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?

Virginia’s moratorium has expired, leaving only the CDC ban. Housing advocates say one of Virginia’s most significant eviction protections ran out at the end of June. It was a requirement that landlords apply for rent relief money on their tenants’ behalf. Renters now have to seek it out themselves.

WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

Virginia’s Rent Relief Program helps tenants suffering financial hardship from the pandemic. Fairfax and Chesterfield Counties administer their own programs. As of July 14, more than $308 million had been paid out statewide to support more than 48,000 households, according to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. Virginia and its local governments will ultimately have access to about $1 billion in funds to help renters. The state has launched an awareness campaign, while legal aid attorneys and others are offering to help tenants navigate the application process.

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

Eviction hearings and judgments have continued, but at a sharply lower rate: about 10% of pre-pandemic totals during 2021′s first quarter, according to Virginia Commonwealth University’s RVA Eviction Lab. Co-directors Kathryn Howell and Ben Teresa cite various reasons, from eviction moratoriums to landlords utilizing the relief fund. Judges have also postponed cases to allow more time to apply for relief, said Martin Wegbreit, director of litigation for the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society. But courts have continued to issue some judgments, oftentimes against tenants who already moved out and failed to show up to their hearing, Howell said. The state is also requiring courts to grant a 60-day continuance for an eviction proceeding when a tenant can demonstrate that their failure to pay was due to the effects of COVID-19. That protection expires at the end of September.

HOW AFFORDABLE IS HOUSING IN THE STATE’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?

More than 20% of Virginia’s rental households have people with “extremely low” incomes — and a majority of them spend half their money on housing costs and utilities, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Plus, Virginia has a shortage of nearly 150,000 rental properties for people with extremely low incomes. Concerns about affordable housing are most acute in northern Virginia, outside the nation’s capital, but housing advocates say Richmond and Hampton Roads have very tight rental markets as well. They’ve also seen a sharp rise in rents, according to Realtor.com. For instance, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Richmond rose 19% year over year, to $1,166 in June. The region that includes Norfolk and Virginia Beach saw a 14.6% rise in median rent for a two-bedroom apartment, to $1,392.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

A recent U.S. Census survey of nearly 120,000 Virginians found that about 23,000 feared they were “very likely” to leave their home in the next two months due to eviction. Housing advocates worry that evictions will surge, and homelessness could eventually follow, if landlords fail to tell tenants about the relief money. Some will still utilize Virginia’s relief fund, said Holly Yates, a managing attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia. But she said others “won’t want to jump through any more hoops,” especially in a tight rental market where “folks who are a little bit more financially stable are lined up at the door.” But Patrick McCloud, CEO of the Virginia Apartment Management Association, said the eviction process is far more arduous than working with a tenant applying for relief. Plus, McCloud said, “If I evict the resident, I’m never going to see that money.”

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