A suite of bills now making its way through the General Assembly could help reduce Virginia’s high eviction rates.
Among the bills are one, introduced by Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, whose 2nd District includes portions of Stafford and Prince William counties, that would extend a tenant’s right to redeem—or pay the amount due the landlord and stay in the rental property—to two days before the eviction, giving the tenant about two extra weeks to come up with necessary funds.
Another bill requires landlords to offer written leases. If a written lease is not offered, the tenant would be considered to be under a 12-month lease by operation of law.
A third states that any writ of eviction not executed by the sheriff’s office within 30 days of its issuance will be vacated and another limits landlords to being able to file only one unlawful detainer—the legal term for eviction in Virginia—against a tenant at a time.
Many of the bills are the result of recommendations from the Virginia Housing Commission, which put together an eviction study group last year after Princeton University published its Eviction Lab, led by sociologist and professor Matthew Desmond.
Eviction Lab found that five of the 10 U.S. cities with the highest eviction rates are in Virginia. They are Richmond, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Chesapeake.
And all five localities in Planning District 16—Fredericksburg, along with Stafford, Spotsylvania, Caroline and King George counties—have eviction rates that are higher than the national average of 2.34 evictions per 100 rental properties.
Virginia Housing Commission’s study group included stakeholders from across the sector, including property managers, said Christie Marra with the Virginia Poverty Law Center.
“We are seeing the emphasis of the landlord-tenant bills being introduced being very different this year,” Marra said. “Any bill endorsed by the housing commission is moving forward with bipartisan support.”
Ann Kloeckner, executive director of the local Legal Aid Works, said the bills will level the playing field for landlords and tenants.
“What I see in this suite of proposed legislation is an attempt to really give each party in the rental equation a fair stake,” she said. “Landlords need their rent. Tenants need a decent place to live. When you put all of [the new legislation] in place, what I see is the local environment becoming just a little bit less difficult for tenants to navigate.”
Kloeckner said quirks and holes in Virginia’s landlord–tenant law as it is now “repeatedly pummel a hardworking low-income person struggling to make ends meet.”
When a person is living paycheck to paycheck, just one setback, such as a child’s illness or necessary car repair, can eat up one month’s rent, Marra said.
“Often they just need time to get paid again,” she said. “Right now, they’re at the mercy of the landlord. [The new legislation] gives them a right.”
Marra said the study group found that routinely, especially in rural areas, leases are agreed upon by a handshake and the terms are month-to-month.
“So tenants are afraid to take their landlords to court to assert their rights because they’re afraid the landlord will turn around and evict them 30 days later,” she said.
But new legislation would mean that, unless stated otherwise in writing, all leases are for 12-month periods.
Kloeckner said the new bills mean a landlord will be more likely to collect the money that is owed to him or her.
“There’s no question that the landlords are supposed to get their rent. One of the most essential duties of the renter is to pay rent and pay it on time,” she said.
“When [renters] get behind, they need to come back up to speed and get that rent in. So some of these bills will, I think, have the consequence of actually making the landlord whole and allowing the landlords to get more chance to get their rent than if we just said, ‘Off with your head, go get evicted.’ ”
The bills recommended by the Virginia Housing Commission are moving forward with unanimous support. Carroll Foy’s bill, HB1898, passed the House on Wednesday and a similar bill passed a Senate subcommittee.
HB2054, requiring a written lease, also passed the House on Wednesday and the Senate version moved out of committee.
Marra said she expects the new legislation recommended by the Virginia Housing Commission to reach the governor’s desk.
“I think they’re in good shape,” she said.
Kloeckner said she thinks the combination of Eviction Lab’s report and the report from the Virginia Housing Commission have contributed to the momentum and support behind the new legislation.
“I think most legislators really want to have solid facts behind what their legislation is doing,” she said. “This was really clear this time.”
“We’ve started a commonwealth-wide dialogue,” she added. “It’s harder now to not be part of that conversation. When we all get together, we’re going to come up with policy solutions that make sense.”