Our pandemic reality is precarious. And many Virginians have struggled like never before to keep the lights on and pay the rent.
Since a special session began in the summer, members of the General Assembly have acted on a series of rules intended to provide relief for both tenants and landlords trying to make ends meet.
On a summer evening, Tammie Lyle is in the parking lot of a Motel 6 across from Richmond International Airport. She’s a few yards away from the room where her son is winding down after a day of virtual elementary school.
The family has lived here for weeks. They have two beds, one bathroom, no kitchen. And the rent isn’t cheap.
“It’s more than everybody’s rent. Almost everybody, anyway. It’s over $1,200 a month,” she says. In Richmond, the median rent is $979, according to Census data.
When schools closed in the spring because of the pandemic, Lyle had to quit her job to take care of her son.
“It’s kind of hard because you can’t go back to work because somebody got to be, you know, present and it’s just me. So me being a single mom, I have to stay with him,” she explains.
She applied for unemployment, “but, it only go but so far. It’s not the same as your regular paycheck.”
COVID-19 has hit everyone in some way or another, says Lyle, and it’s an eye opener about how a situation can change so quickly.
“Even though I worked for 7-11, I had a pretty good position. And I still can go back but, with everything going on that’s in my way,” she says, “you can have the world one day and wake up the next day and have nothing.”
As Lyle searched for a way to get her son care during the school day so she could get back to work, members of the state’s General Assembly were gathering for a special session.
A proposal from Sen. Mamie Locke (D-2) and another from Del. Clinton Jenkins (D-76) that would have extended protections to some living in motels during the pandemic failed to make it to a floor vote.
Virginians in Lyle’s situation are not eligible for assistance through the state’s Rent and Mortgage Relief Program (RMRP), explains Christie Marra, an attorney and director of housing advocacy at the Virginia Poverty Law Center.
“They have no protection. They can’t qualify for the rent and mortgage relief until they’ve been there more than 90 days. It’s a big problem,” she explains.
Advocates like her were hoping for more than what legislators have delivered on the handful of housing laws presented in the special session.
That includes the eviction policy that was adopted.
“To be clear, this is not an eviction moratorium. It [gives] additional protections for people who can’t pay their rent because of the pandemic, but it doesn’t go far enough,” she says.
Marra was hoping that lawmakers would ban all evictions until after April 30, 2021 or 60 days after the current state of emergency. Proposals from Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-10) and Del. Joshua Cole (D-28) that would do this were unsuccessful.
Instead, the General Assembly adopted a lengthy provision in the state budget outlining a series of steps landlords and tenants have to take before an eviction can happen during the governor’s COVID-19 state of emergency.
The law has yet to be enacted but, if it takes effect, landlords will not be allowed to evict tenants who can’t make rent before December 31, 2020, unless an eligible tenant refuses to apply to the state rent relief program or does not cooperate with a landlord applying on their behalf.
Other lease violations are not covered by the rule, like having a guest who stays too long, or a kerosene heater if the heating goes out, Marra explains, leaving many Virginians vulnerable to being unsheltered during the pandemic.
Some have a different issue with the state’s eviction language.
Brian Gordon, Virginia vice president of government affairs at the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, says a ban on evictions for nonpayment through the end of 2020 doesn’t help anyone.
“Obviously it doesn’t work to the benefit of the housing provider, but the tenant also continues building a deeper financial hole out of which they may not be able to emerge,” he says.
But overall, Gordon says those in his industry were happy with what came out of the special session as well as the eviction language that applies after January 1, 2021.
The rules are complicated and Marra offers this advice for those confused by the process: “Even if it seems simple, there are things that could trip you up if you don’t know about them, so please try to get in touch with a lawyer as soon as you get that (pay-or-quit) notice from your landlord.”
What’s clear, she says, is that “the state budget requires landlords to provide notice to tenants of the availability of rental assistance” through the RMRP and tell them about 2-1-1, which is the number Virginians can call to find out about additional resources available in their area.
“The language also requires landlords to actually apply for rental assistance within 14 days of when they send this pay-or-quit notice to the tenant, unless the tenant tells them they have applied. This is the hole. This is the hole the tenants, we are really afraid, will fall through.”
Starting January 1, 2021, regardless of who sends the application for rent relief, landlords can evict if the tenant’s rental assistance application isn’t approved within 45 days, unless the tenant pays within two weeks of receiving the notice from their landlord.
Applications filed by landlords move through a different and more efficient pipeline than those filed by tenants, says Marra, and in some parts of the state, administrators charged with disbursing those funds based on tenants’ applications are two to three months behind on tenants’ applications.
Aside from eviction rules, lawmakers have adopted a handful of other housing laws.
That includes a bill from Del. Cia Price (D-95) and Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30) that would give tenants who are behind on rent the option to enter a payment plan with their landlord before eviction proceedings can begin.
Gordon says that’s a best practice many landlords have already been doing to keep residents housed. After all, an eviction is costly for everyone, he explains.
“The cost of proceeding with an eviction is roughly four months’ rent. And that’s the rent loss and the time it takes to get into court, as well as the cost of turning over a new unit and bringing in a new tenant.”
Another bill clarifies a law that took effect earlier this year giving a 60-day stay on evictions for residents who experienced income losses because of the pandemic.
The new laws, combined with existing protections and rent relief resources can help stem a wave of evictions, says Gordon. That, and a number of landlords who have already been working with their tenants.
“There’s kind of a level of fatigue within the industry as constantly being cast in the role of the villain. You know, we’re in the business of providing housing and we take pride in that.”
According to data Gordon has compiled from the National Multifamily Housing Council, internal surveys and other sources, “overall rent collections across the industry have still roughly been nearing 2019 levels.”
He adds, “on the whole, people are still paying their rent,” but “you get a very different picture when you look at Class C.” That’s a classification used for older properties that are usually in low-income areas.
In September, Gordon shared data with the General Assembly indicating that people living in Class C properties have a “diminishing capacity” to pay rent on time.
“These are your most vulnerable Virginians,” he explains.
Legal aid advocates and attorneys like Elaine Poon at the Legal Aid Justice Center are working overtime to help those who haven’t found relief.
Usually Poon focuses on housing policy and represents a tenant’s association, “but because of the pandemic I have actually picked up actual eviction cases,” she says.
This year, Poon has watched the pandemic exacerbate long-standing inequalities.
“One of the biggest crises that we face in America that’s long term is the income and wealth gap, but the wealth gap is really a big one. And the wealth gap is racial,” says Poon, “it comes from events like this where we leave people behind and then it lasts for sometimes decades.”
Prior to the pandemic, Black, Hispanic and Asian households had a higher burden of rental cost than white households, per the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.
Data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities indicates that since February, racial and ethnic disparities in job losses and unemployment have widened.
By the end of September, about 86.6% of white renters were current on rent, whereas 65.3% of Black renters were current, according to the most recent data available from Stout, a financial advisory firm. In other words, a white renter is about 1.3 times more likely to be able to pay their rent on time.
And none of that data sheds light on the burden of those without a lease.
The summer evenings have chilled since the General Assembly’s special session began and Tammy Lyle’s son started the school year.
Recently Lyle was able to find care for her son during the day so she can return to her job at 7-11. The family is still living at the Motel 6. Lyle remains ineligible for assistance.
If you or someone you know is struggling to pay the rent, you can find more information online at stayhomevirginia.com or by calling the Virginia eviction legal helpline at 833-663-8428.