Attorneys Available By Phone, Day Of Court To Help Richmond Tenants Stop Evictions
Much of America’s understanding of Virginia’s eviction problem starts at the John Marshall Courthouse.
In the spring of 2018, The New York Times painted a grim picture of tenants rotating in and out of the doors of the general district courthouse, only to lose their home after a short eviction proceeding.
Using data from the Princeton Eviction Lab, the Times reported that Richmond and four other Virginia cities were among the top 10 places for evictions.
And while the number of cases on the docket is still significant, one big change here is giving tenants a fighting chance at avoiding an eviction.
When a tenant in Virginia is faced with an eviction, they almost always lose their case. But with an attorney on hand to offer legal advice or represent them, they’re more likely to successfully fight their eviction. Now there is a new program in Richmond to help tenants do just that.
“From May 14 through June 13 there were 22 court dates,” said Marty Wegbreit, director of litigation with Central Virginia Legal Aid Society. “There were 1,665 cases on the docket. That’s an average of 75 per day.”
Wegbreit is in a small office on the third floor of the courthouse. His nonprofit moved in this past May and is now just footsteps away from the two courtrooms where evictions are heard daily.
Wegbreit said tenants who show up to these hearings don’t usually have an attorney.
“But because we’re here, they can contact us,” he said. “Whether it’s a few minutes before court or more likely after court, and if they’ve contacted us after court and the case has been postponed or continued for a week or two, we can get in and do a lot of good stuff and help and explore defenses.
Inside the office is a desk, a couple of chairs and a single housing attorney named Janae Craddock. Craddock just came in from a chaotic hearing in which her client avoided an eviction. She was able to present a case to the judge that conditions at the property were deplorable and the landlord unlawfully shut off the utilities.
“That allowed the tenant to get out of that lease,” she said. “He will get out of that home. But he will not have that eviction, so to speak, on his record.”
She counts this as a win.
Craddock is a former prosecutor who says working in the office has opened her eyes about evictions.
“I’ve come to realize how nuanced landlord tenant law is and it’s not just as simple as you didn’t pay, you can’t stay,” Craddock said.
Wegbreit added the language used at these hearings and in the eviction papers are nearly incomprehensible to the average person.
“The legal system was designed by lawyers for lawyers,” Wegbreit said. “It was not designed for unrepresented litigants and it certainly was not designed for tenants.”
Outside the office, on a wall between the two courtrooms, paper dockets are posted that show who’s in court that day, what for and how much they owe.
Most of the tenants on the docket are being sued for less than $1000 -- about one month’s rent. That has Wegbreit asking if it’s just too easy for a landlord to evict in Virginia.
“All the landlord has to do is to send a notice,” he said. “If nonpayment of rent they can come back seven days later and file the lawsuit.”
The online court forms are free, the filing fee is $58 and the landlord gets a hearing in three weeks. Wegbreit said, on average, 75% of tenants won’t show up to those hearings, giving landlords the advantage.
“If you were a landlord, why wouldn’t you do that?” Wegbreit said.
Craddock didn’t necessarily agree that the system favors landlords. She blames larger economic factors.
“It’s not that it’s easy to evict people but it’s easy to find yourself in that position when you are a person that’s living paycheck to paycheck,” Craddock said.
Landlord attorneys at the courthouse said they support tenants getting help, but several didn’t like the idea of the new office.
Linda Price, an attorney with Godwin, Jones and Price, said she’s concerned about the perception that the office is an arm of the court or that the legal aid attorneys are employees of the state.
“Those are individuals who are housed in courthouses,” Price said. “Not private attorneys. Not legal aid attorneys. So that, I think is a problem.”
Price also questions the ethics of having the office outside the courtroom.
“I hope that the courts and the clerks aren’t in some way swayed or influenced by the fact that the legal aid attorney is in the next room,” Price said.
Some landlord attorneys said they thought the office was being paid for using taxpayer dollars. It’s not. Central Virginia Legal Aid Society pays rent to be there, and the program is funded by grants. Craddock doesn’t even have a designated parking spot at the courthouse.
Price and other landlord attorneys stressed that they wished tenants would get this kind of help long before their scheduled court date.
Wegbreit and Craddock said this is the first time they’d heard these concerns from landlord attorneys and dismissed the idea that their tiny office would improperly influence the court.
“There’s a lot more that would have to be done besides our presence to tip the scales,” Craddock said.
As for getting tenants help earlier in the process, Legal aid groups just launched an eviction helpline. It’s expanding this month to reach more tenants. The city is also launching a voluntary eviction diversion program this fall. Lawyers will volunteer to try to reach a settlement between landlords and tenants outside of court.
*This story is part one of a three part series on eviction we're sharing on Wednesdays during August.