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Virginia pilot program shows promise as state faces ‘eviction tsunami’

A man sits at a desk while completing paperwork.
After being evicted from his home, a father fills out rental applications in 2019 while living with his family in a Richmond motel. In Virginia, monthly eviction hearings have reached — and in some cases — surpassed pre-pandemic levels. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

A state pilot program designed to help low-income households pay critical expenses — like car repairs or medical bills – and connect them to support services like financial counseling shows promise in reducing evictions, according to a new study by the RVA Eviction Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Still, researchers said the state pilot program in five cities isn’t a panacea to a deepening affordable housing crisis. Marty Wegbreit, director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, warned an “eviction tsunami” had descended on the commonwealth as state and federal pandemic programs rolled back in recent months. There’ve been more than 18,000 eviction hearings in Virginia this month — more than double the volume heard in May, according to data scraped from online court dockets by the Legal Services Corporation.

The first iteration of the Virginia Eviction Reduction Pilot aimed to reduce the likelihood of eviction cases reaching the courtroom. It provided four local nonprofits in Richmond, Norfolk, Southwest Virginia and the Virginia Peninsula with a total of $3.3 million in state funds. From April 2021 to June 2022, the program helped 1,353 households. Participants in the pilot were predominantly Black, and the majority were female, according to the study. The pilot overlapped with the Virginia Rent Relief program, which helped cover rental costs for many tenants.

Richmond resident Debbie Anderson found out about the pilot when she got behind on her rent. The grandmother of six said she was dealing with unexpected car repairs that affected her ability to cover other costs. She talked to Housing Opportunities Made Equal, a Richmond nonprofit that participated in the pilot, and received $1,500 to help cover rent. She also received one-on-one counseling to evaluate her finances and establish goals around housing.

“It helped tremendously,” Anderson said. “It helped put me back on track.”

Researchers at the eviction lab, which is part of VCU’s Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, compared zip codes where people participated in the pilot to comparable ones where they did not. They found a modest but statistically significant decrease in eviction filings and judgements in zip codes that participated in the program. 

Kathryn Howell, co-director of the RVA Eviction Lab and a professor at VCU focusing on affordable housing, said beneficiaries of the program were clear in interviews that the extra money made a difference.

Still, “no one will tell you this is the one thing that's going to solve evictions,” Howell said. “It's bigger than that.”

A second iteration of the program began in January with seven eviction reduction programs spread across the state, and applications recently closed on a third round, which will focus on “creating a coordinated eviction prevention and diversion system” with courts, landlords and legal aid services.  

Christine Marra, director of housing advocacy at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, said she would press lawmakers to quadruple the roughly $3 million in annual funding for the program in their upcoming January session. And with calls to the group’s eviction hotline spiking, Marra said the state also needs to consider other policy solutions, like reinstating expired pandemic rules that landlords give an extra 14 days to allow a tenant to pay rent before filing an unlawful detainer in local court. 

Wegbreit agreed that those provisions would help as eviction filings reach or exceed pre-pandemic levels. He said reforms prompted by The New York Times’ 2018 coverage of Virginia evictions have made a dent, but he said judges don’t always follow the letter of the law.

“The situation is not quite as dire as it was pre-pandemic because we legal aid lawyers and other tenant advocates do have more tools at our disposal to protect tenants from hasty and unjust evictions,” he said. “But those tools are not always sufficient.”

Patrick McCloud, CEO of the Virginia Apartment Management Association, said the state rent relief program — now down to its final tranche of funds — had failed landlords, with numerous reports of delayed payments. He noted that eviction filings don’t always result in an expulsion and are often seen by landlords as the only option to collect money from tenants.

Still, McCloud said he backed programs like the eviction reduction pilot, so long as they helped tenants before they wound up in court.

“I would rather spend money on the front end than spend money and pay attorneys on the back end,” McCloud said.