A state housing panel has started studying ways to bring down high eviction rates found in several Virginia cities in the hopes of finding legislative fixes that the General Assembly could take up next year.
As a Virginia Housing Commission work group began those discussions Monday, sharp differences of opinion emerged over whether high eviction rates are a byproduct of poverty and a lack of affordable housing or the result of landlord-tenant laws that are stacked against renters who struggle to pay the bills.
Linda Price, a housing industry lawyer who works with central Virginia landlords, opened the discussion by critiquing a recent New York Times article on a first-of-its-kind study of nationwide eviction data. The data, compiled by a research team led by Princeton sociologist and author Matthew Desmond, showed that half of the 10 large U.S. cities with the highest eviction rates are in Virginia.
The researchers produced rankings that showed Richmond with the second-highest eviction rate in the country. Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Chesapeake also ranked among the top 10.
As she addressed the work group, Price said the data did not show how many evictions were initiated for nonpayment of rent and how many stemmed from other tenant issues such as drugs and violence. It shouldn’t be surprising, she added, that eviction rates are higher in “more depressed areas.”
“This is an issue of poverty,” Price said. “It’s not an issue of the law. It’s not an issue of money management. Individuals don’t have the money.”
A separate Richmond Times-Dispatch analysis of eviction records found that Richmond’s public housing authority initiated more evictions than any other landlord in the state, while some private landlords were even more aggressive about using the courts to force tenants to pay rent or leave.
Patrick McCloud, CEO of the Virginia Apartment Management Association, ticked off statistics about housing affordability in several Virginia localities. In Richmond, a city with a poverty rate of 26.2 percent, a person would need an annual income of about $37,000 to afford the average rent of $1,043 per month, McCloud said.
“Part of this issue is the failure of our local governments to actually approve multifamily and density development,” McCloud said.
The comments from industry representatives drew a pointed response from work group member Laura Lafayette, CEO of the Richmond Association of Realtors.
Lafayette said she did not want to get into a debate, but she felt compelled to speak up “if we’re going to have folks from the industry come up here and preach about affordability.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve held my tongue. But that fact that we landed five of 10, that is not just about poverty. And it is not just about affordability. Because those aren’t unique to the commonwealth of Virginia,” Lafayette said. “There is something in our state law that is contributing to the situation in which we find ourselves.”
Martin Wegbreit, director of litigation for the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, pointed out several examples of ways in which the legal system is “unfriendly” to tenants by giving them little legal recourse in disputes with landlords unless their debts are fully paid.
Even if a tenant finds a way to pay the rent during the eviction process, he said, the landlord can choose to move forward with the eviction anyway.
“We have some bad laws,” Wegbreit said. “And I beg you to start thinking about changing them.”
State Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, said a special subgroup will be tasked with studying eviction data and making recommendations to the housing commission.
“We need to get to the root of what those causes are and begin to address them seriously,” Locke said.
The Virginia Poverty Law Center is convening its own group to study eviction rates.