A Virginian-Pilot article by reporter Jonathan Edwards.
VIRGINIA BEACH — Ricky Johnson was on the fast track to living on the streets for Thanksgiving, during the worst part of the worst pandemic in more than a century.
Johnson, a 67-year-old Vietnam vet, has lived in his mobile home for seven years and never had a problem making rent. Until the coronavirus. He still gets his Army pension and disability money, and so does Mike, his brother and roommate. But people are afraid of letting strangers into their home, so the odd jobs Ricky Johnson used to do to make ends meet, such as house repairs and renovations, have dried up. Now the Johnson brothers are $2,600 behind, and their landlord is suing to evict them.
They’re but two of thousands of Virginians facing eviction as an economy crippled by COVID-19 squeezes landlords and tenants alike. Since the spring, the state and federal governments have stepped in, giving people money to cover rent and, in some cases, blocking landlords from evicting them. Housing advocates lauded those measures but say they won’t be enough to stave off a looming eviction crisis they say would pose humanitarian, economic, and public health threats, all at once.
“The tsunami is brewing,” said Christie Marra, director of housing advocacy for the nonprofit Virginia Poverty Law Center. “We are in the middle of a pandemic that you can only be secure from if you stay home.”
Even before the pandemic, eviction rates in Virginia are among the highest in the nation, according to 2016 data released by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab in 2018. Four Hampton Roads cities — Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Chesapeake — were ranked in the top 10 in the country among large cities. Virginia Beach was No. 15. But eviction lawsuits plummeted during the pandemic when the state Supreme Court declared a “judicial emergency,” ordering non-essential, non-emergency court proceedings be postponed, according to Virginia Court Data, a private group that makes case records searchable statewide since the state court system doesn’t.
Eviction lawsuits have increased each of the past three months, although they’re still well below normal, according to the group’s data.
The Supreme Court’s ban ended for good in September, and other state and federal protections also have expired. In early September, the Centers for Disease Control banned many evictions, so long as tenants made less than $99,000 a year and signed an affidavit under penalty of perjury swearing they couldn’t pay rent or had lost money during the pandemic. That moratorium expires on Dec. 31, a deadline that led state lawmakers to step in.
The most recent protections came last week when Gov. Ralph Northam announced that, starting Jan. 1, landlords would have to give their tenants 14 days notice before suing to evict them, instead of the normal five days. Plus, the new law forces landlords, not tenants, to take on the burden of applying for state money that can be used to cover back rent before trying to evict. That’s key, housing advocates say, because landlords’ applications to the Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program are getting processed much faster than renters’.
Patrick McCloud, CEO of the Virginia Apartment Management Association, said many of the landlords he represents are doing that already. But, he added, the government shouldn’t be forcing them to because they’re not the ones who owe money.
‘When the money runs out’
The new state protections will only exist as long as there’s taxpayer money for rent. Once that runs out, the protections evaporate and landlords can, in effect, evict tenants as they normally would. And renters are gobbling up the pool of rent money faster than ever. Officials had paid out $23.9 million to people for their rent through Nov. 4, according to the most recent data from the state Department of Housing and Community Development. That’s about 38% of the roughly $63 million in the federal CARES Act money state officials can give out to renters, which has to be spent by Dec. 31 or returned to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
But payments through the Rent and Mortgage Relief Program have increased exponentially as state and local government officials have worked out kinks and staffed up. In July, the first month of the program, state officials gave out $1.4 million to cover back rent and mortgages. In a recent month-span of the program, they gave out $9.6 million.
There’s a $30 million pot of federal money that doesn’t have to be spent by the end of the year, the Virginia Poverty Law Center’s Marra said, and lawmakers in Richmond allocated another $12.5 million in state money that can also be used into 2021. Still, Marra said, $42 million won’t be nearly enough to cover the need, which she thinks will last for two years as the country deals with the pandemic and the economy slowly recovers.
“I’m very, very worried about what’s going to happen when the money runs out.”
Thaler McCormick heads ForKids, one of some 30 organizations across the state determining whether applications are eligible for the CARES Act rent bailouts. ForKids, a Norfolk-based nonprofit that provides homeless services, assesses applications from Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake and Suffolk.
Through Nov. 20, ForKids has paid out $3.4 million to 900 households, out of the $5.8 million it’s received, or less than two-thirds. But McCormick said ForKids already has a backlog of more than 1,000 applications in various stages of completion. On average, ForKids pays an applicant $3,500 in back rent, so McCormick thinks that money has, in effect, already been spoken for.
And the need keeps coming. ForKids received 6,659 calls to its housing crisis hotline in October of last year. This October, that number nearly doubled, to 12,724. McCormick said there are no signs of slowing.
McCloud, with the apartment management group, said he thinks the current pot of money is enough to get landlords and tenants through the next few months. By then, the market will have had a chance to correct itself, through a rebounding economy, renters seeking out apartments that cost less, or both. But, McCloud added, he doesn’t think there’s a growing tinderbox of delinquent renters waiting to explode into an eviction crisis. He heard those predictions in the spring, and then in the summer. The dire warnings never materialized into an explosion. McCloud said the vast majority — some 90% — of renters at “professionally managed properties” are paying and caught up on their rent, only a slight decrease from pre-pandemic levels.
But those statistics only cover a certain type of landlord, those who tend to own fewer properties and care about their tenants, Marra said. What McCloud’s numbers don’t cover are slumlords or out-of-state companies with hundreds, or thousands, of units. The latter use automated systems that mindlessly send out legal notices and file eviction suits without trying to work with their tenants.
“Then the tsunami happens because the machine keeps going,” she said.
‘Don’t give up’ It looked as if Ricky Johnson would get caught in the path of that wave when his landlord, Rhema Associates Inc., sued him and his brother last month in Virginia Beach General DIstrict Court, one of the first steps property owners have to take to evict tenants. On Nov. 10, the company won its case when a judge awarded them possession of the property.
That cleared the way for Rhema Associates, a property management company, to have the Virginia Beach sheriff physically kick the Johnsons out of their home, which was supposed to happen Nov. 20, Ricky said.
But with the help of a neighbor and housing advocates, Johnson went to court the day before. Using arguments the advocates recommended, Johnson persuaded the judge to vacate a previous ruling and continue the case to the beginning of January.
So they have a home through the holidays. Johnson said the brothers, who have been roommates for years, had no backup plan and probably would have been homeless and living on the streets had they been evicted. On Wednesday, a man who answered the phone at Rhema Associates identified himself as a property manager and said the company hadn’t tried to evict Johnson. When he was told court records showed the company had filed an eviction lawsuit against him and his brother on Oct. 21, the man admitted that was true. But, he added, the company had since set up a payment plan with Johnson and that “we’re all good.” When asked for his name, the man hung up.
Johnson’s neighbor, Malerie Malone, said Rhema is lying. There is no payment plan and never was. Malone, whose landlord is also Rhema, has been helping the Johnson brothers fight eviction as well as get food stamps and government money for gas as the pandemic has taken its toll. She went to their two court hearings and even addressed the judge when Ricky couldn’t read the papers he’d brought to court because he didn’t have his glasses.
What actually happened, Malone said, was the judge reversed the earlier court decision awarding possession of the apartment to Rhema, citing the new state protections enacted by the governor the day before. Moreover, the United Way of South Hampton Roads agreed to pay the Johnsons’ back rent, plus what they owe through November. Malone said she wants other people facing eviction to know they have tools they can use to fight getting thrown out on the streets. When she was in court with the Johnsons, she noticed that so many people don’t know there are protections, and the judges either don’t know about them or don’t bring them up before siding with landlords.
“Don’t give up. Don’t go down without a fight,” she said.
Marra said she hopes the pandemic and resultant recession teaches us to treat housing not as just another good, like a TV or even a car. Human beings are entitled to have a roof over their head, a home.
“Housing isn’t a commodity, right? Housing is a human need.”
Jonathan Edwards, 757-739-7180, firstname.lastname@example.org