Facing The ‘Scarlet E’ Richmond Family Moves Into Motel
Two years ago, Richmond resident Jeffrey, his wife and their four kids were evicted from a house they were renting in Richmond. The family’s nine-year-old son answered the door when a Sheriff’s deputy came knocking first thing in the morning, letting them know they had to vacate the property.
“My son is panicking,” Jeffrey recalled. “The first thing that comes to his mind is…we’re in trouble, what did we do, I don’t want to go to school. It’s a lot for him to worry about.”
The boy was also worried about his parents. The eviction came after Jeffrey’s hours at work were cut, and he’d fallen behind on rent.
“One image that will clearly stay in my mind vividly is my son looking at me and saying ‘dad, this is not your fault,’” Jeffrey said.
It was an extremely stressful and tense morning for the family, as they scrambled to pack up necessities like medicine, clothes and work materials. They didn’t have a storage unit or a vehicle, so they couldn’t take much. They had to leave behind wedding photos, kids’ awards and trophies, furniture and TVs.
A family friend came to pick up the kids and take them to school, but Jeffrey and his wife Kelly sat outside at a nearby bus stop until early afternoon waiting for Jeffrey’s co-workers to come pick them up. Jeffrey says he took a short walk to a nearby park and just cried.
“As a father and a husband, it’s a burden that’s hard to deal with,” Jeffrey said. “I felt like I’d let my family down.”
The Scarlet E
It’s been over two years since Jeffrey and his family were evicted from a house they were renting in Richmond. For close to a year and a half since, they’ve been living in a motel. It’s not an uncommon occurrence for families with an eviction, says Christie Marra, Virginia Poverty Law Center attorney.
“Once that eviction is on your record, it is like a Scarlet E,” Marra said. “You are going to have a really hard time finding a reputable landlord to rent to you. That’s why you end up living in a motel where they can lock you out.”
The first motel where Jeffrey and his family stayed for about 10 months did decide to kick them out earlier this summer. Now, they’re paying $100 more every week for a motel that’s much farther away from Jeffrey’s downtown Richmond job. Still, he hopes the place they’re staying now will be more forgiving than the last.
“It’s kind of like the three-headed monster,” Jeffrey said. “We’ll work with you, we possibly may give you a day, and then it’s, well, if you don’t have the money then you’ve gotta go.”
Meanwhile, they’ve spent hundreds of dollars in application fees for new apartments and houses since the eviction. Jeffrey says some places rejected them based on income or credit score. He recently got a second full-time job making around $10 an hour. But with the motel costing them about $400 every week, they’re not able to save much.
Another barrier: occupancy. Virginia law allows property owners to limit the number of people per bedroom to two. Under that rule, Jeffrey’s family would need a three bedroom place. The rule has also prohibited Jeffrey and his family from staying with relatives. Had they stayed longer than two weeks in his mother-in-law’s two-bedroom apartment, they would have risked getting her evicted, too.
The kicker though, has been the eviction on the family’s record that will follow them for years. According to Marty Wegbreit, director of litigation for the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, an eviction stays on someone’s credit for seven years.
There’s also no process in Virginia to get evictions removed from one’s court records entirely. There’s no eviction expungement process, even if rent is paid in full. However, landlords are required to mark the court record “satisfied” in these cases. If they don’t do that, there is a process for tenants to ensure that’s done.
Jeffrey tried to stop his eviction altogether. Two days before the 2017 eviction, he found a company online that advertised they could help. He sent them $150 in exchange for their promise that they would prevent the eviction.
“When you’re desperate, you don’t know,” Jeffrey said. “There are scams for everything.”
The company didn’t stop the eviction. And when Jeffrey went to court, it was already too late. He says he tried to explain his circumstances to the judge.
“They don’t give you much of a window,” Jeffrey said. “They don’t want to know why you haven’t paid.”
‘It’s like nobody cares’
Ever since the eviction, Jeffrey has been calling various state and nonprofit agencies asking for help. He says no one’s really been able to help with things he needs the most like rental assistance, or help finding a stable place to stay in the long term. Instead, he’s been bounced around from one agency to another so often that sometimes it feels like nobody cares.
“Everybody’s pretty much just like, hey, this is just how it is,” Jeffrey said. “What I’ve wrapped my mind around and tried to understand is that not only for me, a lot of families are just caught in this -- I’d like to say this spin cycle. You go around and around and around and you go from x, y, z and you put your hopes in certain things only for it to come back void.”
One agency he’s constantly been referred to over and over is Richmond’s homeless crisis line. But they only serve people who are within three days of becoming homeless under the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development’s definition of literal homelessness. That standard applies for rapid re-housing, too.
“You do have to be what's called literally homeless, which means really that you have nowhere else to stay,” said Kimberly Tucker, director of housing and homeless services for St. Joseph’s Villa, a provider of Richmond rapid re-housing. “You have no other options. So you could be in a shelter, you could be on the street, it could be in your car...”
Since Jeffrey’s family is affording -- though barely -- to stay in a motel, they don’t qualify for shelter services or rapid re-housing. And while there are some extremely limited pots of rental assistance funding available, they’re scattered across various agencies with fragmented communication.
“I mean really, there isn’t much out there to tell you the God’s honest truth,” said Alice Tousignant, chair of the eviction services workgroup for the Campaign to Reduce Evictions. “It’s a tough road, it really is. Which is why we really need to prevent [evictions] to begin with.”
Last year, Tousignant’s group recommended a list of statewide solutions, including raising the minimum wage and funding an eviction prevention pilot program to provide emergency rental assistance well before someone even ends up in court. They’ll be asking the state to support these proposals in next year’s General Assembly session. Virginia is one of the 21 states that still follows the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
“While money will not solve every issue and problem for every family, it would solve the vast majority of housing issues for most of our families very easily,” said Beth Vann-Turnbull, executive director of Housing Families First.
‘We just can’t take those phone calls’
But there haven’t been a lot of people talking about eviction prevention locally, let alone what happens to families after an eviction. Over the summer, a pair of law students released a report that found coordination among agencies lacking, despite overwhelming community need.
There were more than 15,500 housing-related calls during the first five months of 2019 to 211, a social services referral center run by United Way. The 211 center does link people to a few pots of rental assistance in Richmond, but they’re not considered a hub for everything rental assistance related.
“In Fairfax County there's one central number that those seeking emergency rental assistance or other forms of assistance call,” Yale law student Talya Lockman-Fine said. “Someone in Fairfax picks up the phone and lets tenants know what's available, and they actually also do the additional work of coordinating among various nonprofits in cases where each of them can only provide small pots of funding.”
In Richmond, the bulk of rental assistance is geared to help people before they’re evicted in the first place, not after they’re evicted. Area Congregations Together In Service (ACTS) provides a large chunk of rental assistance available in the city of Richmond.
In fiscal year 2019, they provided an average of $523 to 350 households, and hope to up that number to 400 this year. ACTS CEO Billy Poarch says after The New York Times article came out last year, they realized they needed to increase the amount of money they were giving out per household. The median amount people owed was $686.
“We did up our game a little bit and we were able to come more in alignment with that figure, hoping that could help even more people,” Poarch said.
However, their referral structure is limited. Someone can’t call ACTS directly for help. They can’t even get referred by way of the homeless crisis line. Instead, they have to be referred by one of their approximately 60 partner agencies. ACTS says they can’t share a list of those agencies.
“Some of our partners get over 100 calls a week and they don’t have the staff or resources to even take those phone calls,” Porch said. “Until we’re able to partner with governments and get some government assistance, it’s a tough world out there. We just can’t take those phone calls.”
Other prevention-oriented recommendations for Richmond include embedding case managers in housing complexes. Stanford law student Olivia Rosenthal said a pilot program using this model launched in Syracuse, New York in 2017.
“They placed two case managers in a public housing complex and two in a private housing complex with the idea that these case managers and social workers would work with tenants the second they knew that they might be having trouble with rent or something's come up,” Rosenthal said. “What’s been really exciting is that model has kind of proved the case of this type of integrated support. So now the private housing complex is actually going to fund the two case managers themselves for the next upcoming year because they found it to make sense.”
Meanwhile, Jeffrey and his family are still stuck in a single motel room and anxious to find a better place before school starts. In Richmond Public Schools alone, there were about 300 kids in the district living in a motel at some point during the past school year.
Jeffrey’s son is now 11, and says he just wants to have more space to play. A house with a yard would be ideal.
“I’ll be happy if we get a house so my friends can come over,” he said.
Right now though, he says his parents are doing the best they can.
*VPM’s Megan Pauly worked with On the Media earlier this year to identify the family featured in this story for their series The Scarlet E.
*Being evicted is a serious problem that, as outlined in this story, can affect one’s ability to get housing for many years to come. For that reason, some of the sources in this story are not fully identified.