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'It's not just - you didn't pay your rent': Exhibit at downtown library tells stories behind Richmond's sky-high eviction rate

'It's not just - you didn't pay your rent': Exhibit at downtown library tells stories behind Richmond's sky-high eviction rate

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Housing lawyer Janae Craddock is a year and almost 100 cases in.

In an ideal world, her position at Central Virginia Legal Aid Society wouldn’t be needed, she said, and Richmond wouldn’t have the second-highest eviction rate — 11.4% — among large U.S. cities. But that’s not the case.

“It’s not just ‘you didn’t pay your rent,’” she continued. “There’s typically a story there. There’s typically a reason why. ... I don’t think the public at large really understands that.”

The “Eviction Crisis” exhibit at the Richmond Public Library is trying to change that.

The free exhibition uses 3-D graphs, maps and a running video of personal eviction stories to walk people through the collision of factors that land thousands of Richmond families on the streets each year — among them, steep rents, racial bias in housing laws and a legal process for ejecting tenants that housing advocates say tilts in landlords’ favor.

At the center of it all is race, said Mike Burnette, communications director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, a nonprofit that seeks to end housing discrimination that partnered with the Richmond Public Library on the exhibit.

As he and outreach specialist Kelly Barnum built the displays, Burnette noticed that on a map of the state, areas facing high eviction rates were centered in Virginia’s southeastern region in predominantly black cities like Norfolk, Hampton and Richmond.

“If you look at the racial composition of this area, it’s typically minorities,” he said. “When you look at all this data, what’s the big picture? What are we seeing? [It’s] patterns of race.”

On a recent weekday, he pointed toward a map in the exhibit that marks the city’s highest concentration of eviction and moved his finger around the neighborhoods experiencing the brunt of it. The list includes Gilpin and Manchester, both of which are tinted a deep red.

Red on the map signals areas where more than one in three renters will face eviction in a given year. The national average was about 2.3% in 2016, the latest year for which analysis is available from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. The research was the focus of a 2018 New York Times article that featured Richmond’s high eviction rates.

Among the findings: 1 in 9 Richmond renter households faced an eviction in 2016; about 1 in 5 was threatened with one.

The revelation prompted a flurry of activity. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney launched an eviction diversion program aimed at curbing housing instability in Richmond.

VCU professors Kathryn Howell and Ben Teresa created the RVA Eviction Lab to research why it was happening; a statewide eviction task force will focus on reducing evictions across Virginia, effective July 1.

People of color are more likely to face eviction than white people, RVA Eviction Lab findings show. But it’s not as simple as saying landlords are throwing out African Americans instead of white people, said Howell, co-director of the lab.

“There are larger structural issues that are a part of our history of deep segregation, of income stability that is higher for African Americans. ... Discrimination is an ongoing part of our housing infrastructure,” Howell said. “It’s a larger conversation than just one landlord and one tenant. We’re talking about something that is built into our system.”

It’s complicated. Most of the areas with the highest eviction rates in Richmond are not the poorest, researchers found.

Burnette illustrated the impact of those issues with 300 house keys and 100 doorknobs that he spray-painted in his garage, in colors differentiating the racial divide.

Passing the easels, he stopped at the 36-inch tubes filled with a total of 3,415 Monopoly houses. Hunting down ones with just the right tinted orange, the exhibit’s primary color, took him over four hours.

It’s difficult to accurately account for the number of people within evicted households, Burnette said, but nationally, households with children under 18 are three times more likely to be evicted than childless households. He wanted to put all 17,981 half-inch houses to represent the nearly 18,000 eviction lawsuits filed in one year.

“But it would’ve cost me over $1,000 worth of Monopoly houses. This is one month of eviction lawsuits,” he said of the display.

In 2017, 2,688 cases resulted in evictions enforced by the sheriff’s office. If all of the people living in those households were accounted for, Burnette said the number of those affected annually could be in the tens of thousands.

This past month, librarian and community services manager Natalie Draper continued to meet the people behind those cases.

For years, Richmond’s downtown library has been a safe space for people experiencing homelessness, Draper said — so much so that a part-time social worker was hired in May.

“They have felt, seen and heard,” Draper said. “A lot of people have the impression that eviction is something that just affects poor people. Like, ‘This doesn’t relate to me or my life.’ ... Something like this exhibit really lays out the impact of the cost and the human toll.”

In October, the human toll included 52 families in Creighton Court who were served eviction notices before the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority announced an eviction freeze, a move the agency has since extended through May 1.

Across the country, 90% of landlords have lawyers in eviction cases while only 10% of tenants do, with tenants frequently not knowing they have access to legal aid attorneys in the courthouse.

“Richmond has garnered [attention], not necessarily for good reasons,” Craddock said. “But we have begun to see the pendulum shift ... so many people now know we exist. They can ask us the questions.”

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