Data Presents Complicated Picture Of Virginia Evictions
In April 2018, The New York Times put Richmond and Virginia at the center of a story on a nationwide eviction crisis. Richmond had the second highest eviction rate in the country, according to data from the Princeton Eviction Lab cited in the story, with four other Virginia cities cracking the top ten.
Tenant advocates, politicians and landlords scrambled for solutions that ultimately included a package of legislation that went into effect July 1.
In the year after that story’s release, landlords across the state have continued to file hundreds of evictions a day. VPM’s analysis of more than 300,000 statewide court records found that unlawful detainer filings -- the state’s way of describing eviction court filings -- barely budged in the year after the article’s release, dropping less than half of a percent compared to the year before.
That data provides only a partial insight into evictions. The Princeton Eviction Lab didn’t track actual evictions, just court records. And while statewide data on actual evictions isn’t available, local data from the City of Richmond’s Sheriff's Office shows it’s evicting fewer people -- 2,527 last year, down from a recent high of 3,513 in 2014.
Ben Teresa, an associate professor of the Wilder School of Government at VCU and co-founder of the RVA Eviction Lab, said the issue deserves pressing attention regardless of how the numbers shake out.
“I don't think the question hinges on what is the exact number of evictions or the exact place in which Richmond falls on that,” Teresa said. “But rather, what is the problem and why are we interested in knowing those numbers at all? It's because there is a lot of instability in housing in Richmond and in Virginia.”
A June poll from the Wilder School found that almost half of Virginians see housing affordability as a very serious problem in the U.S.
Deputy Roberts estimates he serves around 80 civil court papers a day, and sees a lot of the same faces in the process. (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM)
Deputy Jesse Roberts with Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office is not a man you want to see on your doorstep. He serves around 80 papers a day from the county’s civil courts, most of it bad news: lawsuits related to unpaid debts, child support or evictions.
In a given month, he estimates he schedules around 120-140 evictions and returns to execute the evictions at around 60 apartments, with the remainder cancelled by the landlord after a tenant settles up or leaves on their own.
Tenants are usually already gone by the time Roberts arrives to evict them. But occasionally they leave surprises, flooding floors from sinks clogged with rags or pouring concrete in air conditioning ducts. More often the apartment is filled with odds and ends left behind, creating a mood Roberts calls “spooky.”
Evictions aren’t an element of the job Roberts likes. He feels especially pained kicking kids out, and tries to arrive after the school buses leave to avoid them seeing him hand a parent an eviction notice, or weeks later, evicting them entirely.
“When you go into a house and see kids toys there…. It makes you feel bad,” Roberts said on a recent July morning. “But I always told myself there's always two sides to a story.”
On the day we accompany Roberts, he’s relieved; he’s got three evictions scheduled, compared to the seven or eight a day he did in June.
His first stop is an apartment in the Chesterfield Village apartment complex. Eviction notices dangle from the doorknob. The tenants owed $864 in rent.
Roberts knocks on the door.
“Hello, Sheriff's office,” he calls out. “Anybody here?”
No one answers; the tenants are gone, but they’ve left artifacts of their life here. There’s a sofa in the living room and a kid’s bed frame propped against a wall. The bedroom has a mattress with folded sheets on top, like someone stepped out before they had a chance to make the bed.
The tenants have 24 hours to come get their stuff. But their two TV stands are empty -- and Roberts says that’s a sign they’re gone for good.
“I’m pretty sure this is all going to be abandoned, and they’re going to just trash it out,” he said.
Sources: Virginia court data scraped via virginiacourtdata.org; renter occupancy data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Includes business evictions, which constitute a small fraction of overall evictions. (Visualization: Ben Paviour/VPM)
Evictions like these used to go mostly unnoticed. That was before sociologist Matthew Desmond’s Princeton Eviction Lab revealed that Richmond had five times the national eviction rate -- a measure that tracks eviction cases where judges ordered tenants to leave.
We wanted to find out if those numbers had changed since April 7, 2018, when the Times article came out profiling the lab’s work. We sifted through data compiled by virginiacourtdata.org, which scraped the state website, removing entries where tenants were obviously businesses (with names like “Corp” or “Ltd”).
The remaining, mostly residential eviction filings dropped from 166,616 in the year before the article was published to 165,932 the year after -- a drop of about 0.4%. Landlords won about 55% of the cases while about 32% of the cases were dismissed. The latter numbers have been relatively constant since at least 2009.
Teresa said the consistency in eviction filings is not surprising given that new laws meant to curb evictions took effect in July, outside of the range of this data.
“I would say I was not surprised because there hasn't been anything that has fundamentally changed yet that would affect the flow of evictions,” Teresa said.
Those laws included requirements for written leases, more opportunities for tenants to pay overdue rent and fees after they’re sued and reducing the number of legal actions landlords can take against tenants who are behind in rent.
The state also launched an eviction diversion pilot program in the cities of Danville, Hampton, Petersburg and Richmond set to begin in July 2020 focusing on tenants who’ve generally been up-to-date with rent. Richmond’s City Council included about $485,000 in funding in its 2020 budget for a separate eviction diversion program proposed by Mayor Levar Stoney that will use mediators. A spokesperson for the mayor said City Council would vote on authorizing spending for that program in September.
‘Virginia Got a Bad Rap’
Patrick McCloud, president of the Virginia Apartment Management Association, said the Princeton Eviction Lab data gave the state and its landlords “a bad rap” by presenting a skewed picture of the problem. He says landlords don’t like evicting any more than anyone else.
“At the end of the day we are in the business of providing housing,” McCloud said. “That means we want to keep someone in their house. Eviction is an absolute last resort that we have to go to if someone is not paying their rent.”
McCloud says the Princeton data is unfair in part because it tracked court judgements rather than actual evictions. In many cases, McCloud says, landlords who win an eviction case don’t actually end up evicting their tenants.
Virginia doesn’t collect statewide data on actual evictions, but the City of Richmond provides one snapshot. Last year, the Richmond Sheriff's office evicted tenants in about 15% of the total eviction cases filed in court; landlords cancelled the majority of unlawful detainer cases that they won before the tenant was evicted by the sheriff’s office.
McCloud says most tenants either reach a deal with their landlord, or leave before the eviction.
Tenant advocates say the latter scenario is just an eviction by another name. And recent research suggests evictions filings still come with a high price for tenants, even if they work out a deal with the landlords. Tenants who lose an eviction case are stuck with an eviction on their record, which can make finding housing more difficult down the road. Princeton Eviction Lab researchers found that landlords who repeatedly file evictions -- so-called serial filers -- also burden tenants with fines and fees that increase their housing costs by an average of 22%.
But McCloud says other factors also gave a false impression of a Virginia eviction crisis.
Independent cities like Richmond and Hampton have higher rates of eviction filings because they don’t include wealthier surrounding counties, where eviction rates are generally lower. Most states lump cities and counties together. And McCloud says that court data in Virginia is unusually accessible; Desmond and his researchers were only able to obtain court data from 12 states directly, though they augmented that information with private data sources.
“Those types of things really skewed the data and made Virginia look bad in a state that really has a very even-handed landlord tenant law,” McCloud said.
Deputy Roberts surveys an apartment where he’s conducting an eviction. Roberts estimates that tenants have already left in 95% of his evictions, but he does a quick check for people, pets, weapons or drugs they may have left behind. (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM)
Christie Marra, Virginia Poverty Law Center’s family and housing law attorney, worked alongside McCloud to craft the legislation passed this year. But in the decade or so she’s spent lobbying the General Assembly, she’s come to the opposite conclusion about the state law.
“Every single year the landlord groups have put in an omnibus bill anywhere from 10 to 30 pages long whittling away at tenants rights, giving landlords more and more rights,” Marra said. “And that process was part of what got us here.”
Marra has drafted bills for the 2020 legislative session that would give tenants 15 days to come up with money for overdue rent before the landlord can sue, up from the current 5 days. Another proposal would allow tenants to withhold rent if repairs aren’t made. She’s currently looking for sponsors.
But Marra acknowledges Virginia can’t completely legislate away its housing problems. Researchers say evictions are connected to broader economic forces, like wage stagnation and a shortage of affordable housing.
Deputy Roberts sees those forces at work firsthand. He can sometimes sense when someone is on the road to losing their home. He starts to see the same faces when he’s out serving papers for unpaid debts.
“I have one guy that tells me, ‘I need to start getting you Christmas cards. I see you more than I see my family,’” Roberts said. “You start to feel a relationship to these folks and you start talking to them. You understand he lost his job, but I wish it was something I could do to help him out. There's just nothing I can do.”
Roberts sometimes helps connect evicted tenants to homeless shelters. But most of the time, by the time he’s gotten there, they’re already gone.
*This story is part one of a three part series on eviction we're sharing on Wednesdays during August.
*A previous version of the audio story mispronounced Christie Marra’s name.