Virginia’s Covid Rental Relief Program Reflects State’s Changing Politics

Editor’s note: If you’re a Virginian impacted by Covid-related rent issues you can find out more about the state program here.

Apartments available to rent in Richmond, Va., once considered among the worst cities in the country for evictions, progressive Democrats hope to enshrine covid-related tenant protection laws into the state’s notoriously landlord friendly law books. (Courthouse News photo / Brad Kutner)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — While Virginia isn’t the only state facing an eviction crisis under the weight of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it has a history of being less tenant friendly with few protections for those who fail to make rent. 

But a new Democratic majority, along with the state’s Democratic governor, devised a temporary fix that not only created new protections for renters, it also addressed landlords’ needs. Called the Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program, it has earned rare praise from both sides of the landlord/tenant relationship locally and nationwide. 

Marty Wegbreit has been defending low income Virginians in eviction hearings for decades. The director of litigation at Central Virginia Legal Aid, he has few nice things to say about landlords or how the state allows them to treat tenants. 

“Virginia didn’t get to be the number one state for business by accident,” he joked in a phone interview. 

Wegbreit deemed the state’s longtime pro-business affinity, including pro-property owner legislation part of the “Virginia way,” a term often used by the state’s traditionally conservative Legislature. But those same laws, he argued, led his home city of Richmond to have some of the highest eviction rates in the country, according to a 2016 Eviction Lab report.

But as the pandemic ravaged employment, it has led to changes to the state’s landlord/tenant laws that the longtime advocate called “unprecedented.” 

“It’s never happened for the 40 years I’ve been involved in evictions,” said Wegbreit on the package of changes, passed during a recent special legislative session, that he said flipped the state’s eviction process on its head. 

The result of Covid-19 budgetary amendments approved by Governor Ralph Northam, the changes have added steps which move the filing of the eviction lawsuit and the actual removal of tenants toward the end of the process instead of at the beginning. 

“Using the eviction to collect rent rather than trying to collect rent and using eviction only as a last result, that’s the old way,” Wegbreit said.

Virginia, like every other state, had struggled to properly address the onslaught of evictions. 

While the state’s supreme court instituted an eviction moratorium shortly after Northam issued his earliest lockdown orders, it expired over the summer. The patchwork of state and federal fixes created in its wake allowed a system Wegbreit called “chaotic and unpredictable.”

But the RMRP and other changes, which all expire in June 2021, include $50 million in CARES Act funds and another $12 million from the state available to landlords to stem the flow of evictions. 

“This had bipartisan support,” said Pamela Kestner, chief deputy of the Department of Housing and Community Development, who’s tasked with organizing the distribution of the wealth of funds. She was grateful when legislators worked across the aisle to develop the expansive program. 

“How else are Virginians supposed to telework or learn from home if they don’t have a home,” she added. 

The program is also being praised nationally. Tracey Benson, president of the National Association of Independent Landlords, said she’s been inundated with calls from both members and nonmembers nationwide who are on dire straits. 

“Landlords feel like they’ve been left out in the cold,” she said, noting eviction moratoriums might keep tenants in homes but don’t address the mortgage and utility payments landlords still have to make. 

When landlords can’t pay those bills, she said, both the landowner and the tenant can lose their housing. But after reviewing Virginia’s program she said few states have offered the kind of “wonderful” relief the state has created.  

“I’m surprised they’re doing this,” she added, noting it goes beyond using local nonprofit groups which some states have relied on, or those states where no action has been taken by elected officials at all. 

Patrick McCloud, CEO of the Virginia Apartment Management Association, said his 325 members who own 240,000 units welcomed the program with only a few reservations. 

He’s been training his members on how to use the system which has processed about $41 million in rent and mortgage payments for 13,267 households throughout Virginia as of Dec. 2. 

The plan also creates a kind of eviction moratorium, using that revised eviction process which added eviction diversion steps like mandated notices of resources and easily requested stays, which McCloud and his group are not a fan of. 

“It’s not ideal,” he said of the relief program which mandates also the landlord and tenant work together to apply for funds which then get paid directly from the state or locally funded organization. 

“We want to be helpful, but it sets up the question for where the state is headed when it comes to the concept of personal responsibility,” he added.

McCloud would rather see money go straight to tenants who then pay their rent, a system he said has been working. He pointed to numbers showing landlord revenue is only down 2% over 2019 because of programs like federally subsidized unemployment which put cash in the consumer’s hand before it lands in the landlord’s. 

Still, he’s had landlords rise to the occasion; in a recent member meeting one rental company said they were offering tenants $200 gift cards if they started the RMRP application process early in an effort to secure funds before it’s too late, an idea other members’ took notice of. 

“There’s a belief in some communities that the property owner isn’t trying to help but we want to get past that myth,” he added. Still, it puts landlords, long operating under the “Virginia way,” in a unique situation. 

“We still think it’s ultimately a resident’s responsibility to pay their rent, but we’re certainly glad to help people,” he said, posing a philosophical issue that reflects the “Virginia way.” 

But Democratic Delegate Cia Price, D-Newport News, said she welcomed this affront to the state’s unwritten but often cited prioritization of business over consumers and she’s proud of her party’s majority which has already passed or is proposing never before seen changes in the law.  

“The conversation itself, from the General Assembly, has switched under Democratic control, with the understanding housing is a human right and not a privilege,” said the legislator who has spearheaded housing issues since her second term in 2018.  

It started slowly, with Republicans still holding power in both chambers in 2019 but, faced with that ominous title of highest evictions following the Eviction Lab report, some changes made it through. 

But the new Democratic trifecta in the House, Senate and governor’s mansion in 2020 opened doors some advocates had considered long closed. 

“No advances whatsoever, we only went backwards,” said Christie Marra, director of housing advocacy at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, about the majority of her last decade advocating for tenants. 

“When I tried to bring new landlord tenant bills, they couldn’t get them out of committee, let alone a patron to support it,” she added. 

But then in 2020, a collection of bills not only made it out of the more progressive House chamber they also made it through the more moderate Senate before landing on the governor’s desk for signature.

Some of the changes included additional protections for tenants based on source of income, notice requirements in the form of a tenant’s bill of rights informing them of what they can and can’t expect, and systems that allowed repair and deduct if a landlord wasn’t addressing long-needed repairs. 

“I can’t tell you what a change it’s been,” Marra said. 

She’s hoping to keep that momentum when the legislature meets in January for their next annual session. Among the long-thought-impossible efforts they’re working toward includes a law that would allow tenants to recover monetary damages when they win unlawful eviction disputes. 

These new regulations, Marra said, aim to be an eviction deterrent rather than a regularly used tool.

“I’m sure tenants would rather not lose their homes than go to court,” she added.  

Price also hopes to sustain this momentum, but the progressive Democrat, now in her third term, has been in her seat long enough to know she’ll have to temper expectations. 

“We’re making huge strides to chip away at some of the inequitable parts of the landlord/tenant relationship, but there’s more work to be done,” she said looking forward to 2021. 

But folks like McCloud, and the state’s business-friendly Republicans, will undoubtedly have a role in how those bills look when they hit Northam’s desk. 

State Senator Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who’s also running for the state’s 2021 GOP gubernatorial nomination, voted in favor of some of the legislation Price pushed in 2020, including the tenants bill of rights. 

“You should give tenants as much information as you can about what’s expected,” said the candidate whose outspoken, Trump-like comments often make more headlines than the pro-transparency policies she’s championed. 

But she is still a Virginia Republican. 

“We can’t strongarm business owners,” she warned. 

McCloud echoed this concern, saying any changes in landlord tenant laws, including new covid-linked regulations and programs, can have an impact on a landowner’s bottom line which can then be applied to the consumer. 

“With rental housing the commodity is time,” he said. “You can’t recapture time,”

Recent changes in law, he argued, have allowed the eviction process to stretch from two months to as much as eight. And, anecdotally, he said tenants two months behind rent, let alone eight, are already considered a loss for most of his members. 

“It wouldn’t be a shock to anyone to say Virginia is not as welcoming to business now as it was two years ago,” he added about the changes he’s already seen. 

Still, he’s not as apocalyptic as some when it comes to the future of rental laws in the state. 

“We are always open to working on housing,” he said. “Our focus is making sure we’re careful about unintended consequences that drive up the cost of housing and harm availability.”

But if Price and Democrats keep their majority, as the state has trended to the left for years, McCloud might be forced into conversations he and his members have never had before. 

Among the covid-related efforts that Price hopes to see extended beyond their June deadline is changes to how many times a renter can make eviction payments up to two days before their final hearing. Right now the state only allows once such excuse, but the delegate called that limit arbitrary. 

“If I’m giving you all the money owed to you, then what does it matter if I do it more than once,” she said. 

And while she’s sensitive to the horrors the pandemic’s has put on renters and landlords from all economic backgrounds, she can’t help but wonder if the national economic struggle might move the conversation around evictions beyond the “Virginia way” of personal responsibility and into the context of emergencies that can impact anyone no matter their income.

“I do feel an ironic glimmer of hope,” Price added.

But this pandemic is far from over. While vaccines are being distributed to much praise the federal money from the CARES Act has long since run dry. Negotiations around new money for states and localities in Congress have stumbled and the idea of those funds not being refilled sounded beyond the pale to Kestner back at the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

“The state can’t do it alone, but we haven’t been,” warned the agency head in such a dire tone it could be heard over the phone. “In my mind I couldn’t think of another approach to address the issue.”

Virginia’s Legislature starts up Jan. 13, 2021.

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