An initial attempt Tuesday at giving Virginia tenants more time to pay off late rent did not progress beyond a promise from members of the state housing commission to discuss the issue more.
One of two proposals to change eviction policies gained no traction, while members agreed to give another one — focusing on eviction issues that make it to court — some more thought.
A chunk of the debate during a meeting of the Virginia Housing Commissions’ evictions sub-work group was about the lack of data on evictions and tenant behavior when it comes to paying rent.
Supporters of the policy changes said they’re working on getting more data. But the changes being proposed were, “logical things” to consider as “reasonable people,” said Christie Marra, a lawyer with the Virginia Poverty Law Center.
Virginia’s eviction rate caught a national spotlight after the New York Times published in April findings from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab project, which named five Virginia cities with some of the highest eviction rates in the country. The study ranked Hampton and Newport News as third and fourth, respectively; Norfolk and Chesapeake were ranked sixth and 10th, respectively; Richmond had the second-highest rate.
There has been debate over how accurate the data is. Researchers looked at a database of court records and specifically tracked money judgments awarded to landlords. The Daily Press did its own review in April — which looked at court orders that granted landlords immediate possession — and found slightly lower numbers for Newport News and Hampton.
Community leaders and lawmakers have agreed that it’s an issue worth studying.
Marra — who concentrates in community development — was one of three people who put two specific proposals forward Tuesday. This was the first time concrete policy changes have been proposed since the study was released.
One proposal was to extend the time in which a tenant can pay late rent before getting officially evicted, in the case that a landlord has decided to take the person to court. The current law allows a tenant to pay rent off before the first court date. The proposal was to extend that to 5 p.m. before the day of eviction — which Marra said is often about two weeks after a court decision.
Currently, a tenant can only exercise this right — called a right of redemption — once every 12 months. The proposal calls to make this right limitless.
Marty D. Wegbreit, of the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, who also helped create this proposal, called this a win-win situation: landlords get their money and don’t have to find a new tenant, and tenants don’t get evicted.
But Chip Dicks, lobbyist for the Virginia Association of Realtors, questioned the thinking behind the proposal and wondered about the possibility of a tenant using this unlimited right every month.
Ivan Jenkins, co-president and counsel for Glen Allen-based Weinstein Properties, called it a “pretty scary thing” for smaller landlords and potentially a path for tenants to chronically pay late rent, hurting business.
Wegbreit said that their proposals don’t apply to “mom and pop” landlords — those who own two units or less, according to state law. There is no specific data that shows how tenant behavior would change if this proposal went through, but he noted that under the right to redemption, a tenant would have to pay late fees and court costs, along with the base rent.
“There’s a built-in disincentive to use it as little as possible, not every month, but as little as possible,” Wegbreit said.
Marra said she understood these concerns, and that they probably deserve a closer look, but also that people generally just want to pay rent on time if they can.
The group agreed to study the proposal more.
The harder sell was the second proposal: to extend the time period that people can pay rent, from five days to two weeks. Right now the law for landlords who own more than two units says that a tenant has up to five days after rent is due to pay before the threat of eviction.
One of the chief concerns appeared to be a lack of data available on how an extension of nine days would make a difference.
Marra said the Virginia Poverty Law Center is working with Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs to tease out some of these numbers. She also has a law student putting a 50-state survey together to compare different laws — including five-day states with 14-day states.
That wasn’t enough for Weinstein Properties’ Jecklin.
“Some people get paid every two weeks, some people get paid on the 1st and 15th,” Jecklin said. “Some people pay their credit cards before their rent, some people pay their car payment before their rent. You know, people are making choices, and I'm not sure we know enough in this room to dictate that adding nine more days is going to affect how those choices are made.”
Marra said she plans to bring back data to the work group or the full commission, when possible, to keep the discussion going. If a proposal does get full support from the commission, a lawmaker is typically tapped or agrees to carry an eventual bill that would be considered by the General Assembly in next year’s session.
Amin can be reached by phone at 757-247-4890.