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Program can help 115,000 Virginia renters now that eviction ban has ended

Wegbreit: 'Virginia has distributed $312 million of rent relief'
Renters, Rentals and Apartments -- Generic
Posted at 10:17 PM, Aug 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-01 22:17:18-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Now that a federal freeze on most evictions expired Saturday, officials stressed Virginia’s Rent Relief Program can still help tenants and landlords suffering financial hardship from the pandemic.

Martin Wegbreit, director of litigation for the Legal Aid Society, said the Virginia's Rent Relief Program still has enough funding to pay the rent for 115,000 tenants.

Virginia and its local governments will ultimately have access to about $1 billion in funds to help renters, according to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. (Fairfax and Chesterfield Counties administer their own programs.)

The following is a transcript of a question and answer session with Wegbreit. It was lightly edited to make for an easier read.

Jake Burns
The eviction moratorium -- the federal one -- has expired. But that doesn't mean necessarily that landlords can start kicking out tenants who have owed back rent. Can you kind of explain what that process means now that we're at this point?

Martin Wegbreit
I think we need to focus as much on the solution as we do on the problem. And the solution to eviction now that the CDC eviction protections have gone away, is the Virginia Rent Relief Program, which is the best rent relief program in the country. Virginia has distributed $312 million of rent relief, that is second only to Texas. And we have distributed little under 30% of the available funds. And that is the number one in the nation. And there's still $700 million left to be distributed. So the key takeaway is for tenants to apply for rent relief, for landlords to cooperate with rent relief applications, or even apply for their tenants. And for tenants who are facing difficulty to contact a rent relief navigator or rent relief facilitator, and/or a legal aid attorney, if they're having difficulty. But most landlords will cooperate because this program benefits everyone. The landlord gets paid in full, the tenant gets to stay and increase housing stability. And the public health is protected, because evictions we know contribute to the spread of COVID-19.

Jake Burns
For those folks who maybe don't know about the program, what are you guys doing to make sure that people are aware?

Martin Wegbreit
The biggest problem that the Rent Relief Program has had, despite its success being the best in the country, is lack of knowledge about it. That is why Housing Opportunities Made Equal Virginia was granted $3.5 million a couple of months ago, to some grant that so that 50 housing navigators, housing facilitators across the state could be hired. Every legal aid program office in the Commonwealth, including the three at Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, have a housing facilitator. And their job is to help people who are having difficulty with the problem. Whether it is the digital divide, or some difficulty getting a required document, to assist them with the process. So that's one of the key ways that we're trying to get the word out. Not only having housing facilitators on staff, but also having the housing facilitators go to public events on a weekly basis, to spread the word through whatever means are necessary. Through public events, through media, through press conferences... Whatever will get the word out to more people to people who really need to hear the information and act upon it.

Jake Burns
How many people could that $700 million help out given what we know about like rent and what that price is like across the Commonwealth?

Martin Wegbreit
So the $700 million that has not yet been dispersed is enough money to pay rent for 115,000 tenants. And that is based really upon the $312 million that has already been spent on roughly 48,000 households. If you simply do the math, the program is spending about $6,000 per household. So when you've got $700 million still unspent, you divide that by 6,000 and come up with at least 115,000 tenant households who could have their rent paid in full -- up to 15 months of back rent by the Virginia Rent Relief Program. And then once the new money, the money that was appropriated in March is available, then an additional three months can be paid for a total of 18 months. Well, when you consider that people really begin having trouble in April of 2020. This program, once it is fully implemented with the new money that became available in March, can pay the rent from April 2020 through and including September 2020. And what's really important about that, is that the federal court class action against the Virginia Employment Commission that has been settled. And the Virginia Employment Commission is supposed to resolve 95% of all the claims that have not been paid or decided by Labor Day weekend. So by the end of September, there is a high likelihood that many landlords will get paid in full either because they are their tenants apply for rent relief, and the parties work together to get the rent paid. So the tenant can stay in public health protected, or the tenant themselves will get a large back award or unemployment compensation that they have been waiting on for goodness 612, maybe 15 months, and the rent will get paid that way. The point is, with so much money available primarily from the rent Relief Program, no tenant in Virginia should be evicted for non payment of rent until that very last dollar has been spent.

Jake Burns
And that new influx of money back in March, is that federal money?

Martin Wegbreit
That's all federal money. In other words, in December, the COVID Relief Bill gave Virginia $524 million. Then the march COVID, relief bill added an additional $400 to $450 million in COVID relief for rent relief. So you add those two together and add in $160 million of state money that started this program in 2020. The total amount of money available under this program is $1.1 billion. That's a huge sum of money. And, as mentioned, it's already paid rent in full for more than 48,000 tenants. And it's enough to pay rent in full for another 115,000 tenants. So it's really a matter of giving the program time to get the money disbursed. And that's what's a little discouraging about the end of the CDC protections is because the CDC protections gave this program the needed time to work. Now, landlords can still voluntarily give this program the needed time to work so that they get paid in full that the tenant gets to stay stable house. And we avoid, or at least minimize, that dreaded fourth surge of COVID-19. Most landlords are on board with this, you can talk to the people at the Virginia Apartment Management Association, you can talk to the people at the National Apartment Association, you can talk to any reputable landlord group, they will agree 100% with what I'm saying. This rent this Virginia Rent Relief Program is the key to keeping people stable in house to making sure that landlords don't suffer any more than they already have, that they in fact don't suffer at all, once they get paid in full, and public health gets protected. I can't imagine anyone who would disagree with those three objectives.

Jake Burns
Reality is there will be some landlords out there that maybe haven't heard of the program or don't want to participate in it. So given that's the fact, if if a tenant runs up against that kind of situation, what is their best course of action, and what kind of rights do they have at this point, to take part in the program, but also make sure they're not put out by their landlord?

Martin Wegbreit
So even if the landlord is reluctant to participate, the tenant still should apply for rent relief. The tenant also should reach out to a rent relief navigator or rent relief facilitator, they go by different names, to see if the facilitator can make some headway with the landlord to persuade them that it is in the interest of both parties. And then if the landlord despite that files an eviction lawsuit, certainly the tenant should go to court with a copy of the rent relief application and urge the judge to stall the eviction until the Rent Relief application can be processed. The tenant also should contact a legal aid lawyer: contact us at Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, because we are ready, willing and able to go into court to argue on the tenants behalf. The law in Virginia requires the landlord to take all reasonable steps to minimize their damages. That's not an option; that's what the law requires. And since July 1 of last year, the law requires landlords to accept rent money from a source other than the tenant. Indeed, there is a ban on housing discrimination based upon the source of funds. So the landlord can't just say, 'I don't want to take this money.' That would violate fair housing. So we're prepared to go to court and litigate that. We hope we don't have to. We hoped it would be 100% cooperation among landlords. We know that's not a realistic goal. But we're prepared to make the case to the courts that there should be 100% of cooperation with tenants applying for rent relief. So they need to apply, they need to get help from a facilitator. If there's a problem, if a matter has been taken to court, they need to go to court and they need to get a legal aid lawyer to help them.

Jake Burns
Is there anything I didn't ask you that you think is important? The overarching theme is, 'Hey, this program's here is ready to help. You should apply for it if you need it.'

Martin Wegbreit
There is still one state protection that remains through September 28 of this year. And that is if the tenant is taken to court by the landlord. They can go to court with written proof that they've lost income due to COVID-19 and get a 60 day postponement of the eviction lawsuit. That's been the law in Virginia since April 22, 2020. Again, one of those eviction protections on the state level that tenants may not be aware of. But that's still the law and it will be in effect through September 28. And so going to court in, let's say, August, and getting that postponement of 60 days until September means that the tenant is buying time to allow the program to work. To get that rent relief application processed within 45 days, which is the standard, or to get the unemployment compensation that hopefully is going to come through the Labor Day weekend. So there are eviction protections remaining for tenants. The tenants need to know about them, they need to use them.