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As federal eviction protection expires this weekend, Richmond tenant advocates say Virginia's rental assistance could help
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As federal eviction protection expires this weekend, Richmond tenant advocates say Virginia's rental assistance could help

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Demonstrators protest against evictions outside the Science Museum where the Virginia Senate is meeting for the first day of a special session in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, August 18, 2020. Video by Alexa Welch Edlund/Times-Dispatch

Virginia’s robust rental assistance program will hopefully stem the tide of what some call an “eviction tsunami” as federal eviction protection expires over the weekend, according to Richmond-area tenant advocates and landlords.

The problem is making sure that those who need it apply for the roughly $700 million still available in assistance.

The moratorium, put in place by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last September, is set to lapse after Saturday with little hope that Congress will enact more protections for those who have fallen behind on rent because of the pandemic.

Nearly $47 billion in federal money was earmarked to help pay rents and related expenses nationally. Virginia and its local governments — Fairfax and Chesterfield counties administer their own programs — will ultimately have access to about $1 billion of that.

As of July 14, almost $312 million had been paid out statewide to over 48,500 households, according to a presentation given Tuesday by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development to the Virginia Housing Commission about the state of the program.

In the first six months of the year, Virginia ranked behind only Texas nationally for distribution of federal emergency rental assistance, according to the office of Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.

Still, nearly 70% of the state’s funding — or about $700 million — remains unspent.

“Based on past expenditures, that is enough to pay rent arrears for more than 115,000 tenants,” said Martin Wegbreit, director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, who also spoke at Tuesday’s meeting. “With so much in available funds, no tenant in Virginia should be evicted for non-payment of rent until after the last dollar has been spent.”

Despite the large reserve and efforts to get the word out, Wegbreit said people still don’t know how to apply for the funds, or how easy it is.

“Some think maybe it’s too complicated and will take too long,” he said. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth. This doesn’t have to be a month-after-month process.”

The state has launched an awareness campaign, while legal aid offices across the state have hired facilitators to help tenants navigate the application process.

“This is not uncommon for a new public benefit programs,” Wegbreit said of the slow rollout, citing the example of enrollment in Medicaid expansion.

Max Cook is the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society’s rent relief facilitator for the Richmond region. He started about two weeks ago and said he’s already met with a dozen people.

“The bar to qualify is a lot lower than people realize,” Cook said. “It’s not quite as daunting of an application as people realize. They are trying to be generous in their definition of who qualifies.”

One question to qualify asks if COVID-19 affected your wages. Cook explained that could mean you were laid off or your hours were reduced, but there is a second part of the question that asks if your expenses have increased. You could qualify if you are paying more in energy costs because you are working from home, or child care costs because your kids aren’t in school.

Renters and landlords can both apply for, and benefit from, rent relief. A state requirement that landlords apply on their tenants’ behalf expired at the end of June, Wegbreit said.

But Patrick McCloud, CEO of the Virginia Apartment Management Association, said many landlords will continue to try to seek relief for themselves and on behalf of their renters because “it makes financial sense.”

The relief funds may be the only way landlords get the rent they’re owed, McCloud said, adding that people don’t pay after they’re evicted. Plus, he said, it takes months to go through the court eviction process, which means more rent goes unpaid.

While some housing advocates worry that evictions will surge, neither Wegbreit nor McCloud expect eviction filings to pick up while relief funds are readily available.

“No one is going to evict anyone if they are going to be made whole,” McCloud said.

But Wegbreit said not every landlord is willing to participate in the program, nor does McCloud’s association represent smaller, single-occupant landlords. He expects the number of evictions to increase steadily into August, September and October.

Evictions never stopped, though. They dropped to about 10% of pre-pandemic totals, according to Virginia Commonwealth University’s RVA Eviction Lab. The decline is partly because of protections like the expiring moratorium, which stopped only the proceedings against people who couldn’t afford to pay rent because of hardship during the pandemic, Wegbreit said. But the moratorium didn’t stop judgments based on other violations of a lease, or those who didn’t show for their hearings.

“Due to this, the remaining state eviction protections take on added importance,” Wegbreit told lawmakers on Tuesday. “All landlords still are required to provide 14-day nonpayment notices to tenants late on rent. This is an increase from the past five-day nonpayment notice.

“Landlords with more than four rental units still must offer payment plans to tenants late on rent. This is a change from the past when such plans were not required to be offered. Both requirements continue through June 30, 2022.”

The state also requires courts to grant a 60-day continuance for an eviction proceeding when a tenant can demonstrate that their failure to pay was due to the effects of COVID-19. That protection expires at the end of September.

To apply for rental assistance, visit applications.deval.us. To find out more about Virginia’s Rental Relief Program or to find out if you qualify, visit https://www.dhcd.virginia.gov/rmrp.

For assistance, Max Cook, rent relief facilitator for the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, can be reached at (804) 250-9753 or max@cvlas.org.

arockett@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6527

Twitter: @AliRockettRTD

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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