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Rent relief program ‘last line of defense’

UPDATE: For the latest on the eviction moratorium in place, see our new reporting here.

Though the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium ended July 31, those behind on their rent payments still have ways to protect themselves against being evicted.

But they can’t assume that just because they received an unlawful detainer or eviction notice that they will get put out on the street.

Amy Disel Allman, director of advocacy with the Virginia Legal Aid Society in Suffolk, said residents who fell behind on their rent payments during the coronavirus pandemic, or who anticipate having trouble making payments, still have avenues at their disposal, even though President Joe Biden declined to extend the moratorium, citing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling late last month that said the CDC could not extend the moratorium without congressional authorization. The White House has called on states and localities to enact their own moratoriums to protect those facing eviction.

The Virginia Rent Relief Program will help people pay rent to landlords going back to April 1, 2020, and can provide for up to three months of payments in the future if needed, but Allman said few tenants and landlords know about the program. It will also pay late fees, court costs and attorney fees. No money has to be paid back.

“The goal of paying all of that,” Allman said, “is to catch the person, the tenant, up completely and give them a fresh start to be able to move forward on their own, successfully, with the landlord and keep their tenants safe — keep the home, keep the roof over their head and be able to stay.”

Allman, along with available attorneys, paralegals and support staff in her office, has been having eviction prevention clinics in Suffolk General District Court every Wednesday, when unlawful detainer hearings are held, working to increase awareness of the program, which has about $700 million in emergency rental assistance available. The program, run through the state Department of Housing and Community Development, has distributed just over $300 million so far to landlords on behalf of their tenants.

Pre-pandemic, Allman said her office had been getting clients through its hotline, but after it began seeing many people fall behind on rent and receive eviction notices, her office started the clinic to “be the last line of defense in court, and we’ve had a lot of success with it.”

Allman said the Obici Healthcare Foundation provided a grant to allow them to hire an additional paralegal for those clinics.

“It’s been really successful in being able to catch people right at that critical point where, if they don’t understand the law, they don’t understand the protections that are in place, they will be evicted,” Allman said. “They will get a money judgment against them, and they will be evicted. … And one of the big things we’ve learned from that is how possible it is to reach a mutually beneficial solution for both the landlord and the tenant.”

Legal Aid also has been able to hire housing navigators for each of its offices thanks to a state grant. Suffolk’s legal aid office, which represents the cities of Suffolk, Franklin and Emporia, as well as Isle of Wight, Southampton, Sussex and Greensville counties, has two housing navigators.

They help tenants and landlords, either in person or on the phone, apply for program money and gather needed documents and walk them through the program until the money is paid directly to the landlord.

The program, she said, is a win-win-win — a win for the landlord because they can get the money owed them, a win for the tenant because they can stay in their apartment or home and a win for the court because it can help prevent its docket from being overloaded any more than it already is.

“With the CDC eviction moratorium gone, with a lot of state eviction protections that we had in place now gone, the last line of defense we have right now is generally the rent relief program,” Allman said. “And frankly, I think it’s the best one. It’s something where the landlords and tenants can work together to get money for the landlord and to allow the tenant to stay.”

Priority for the program is given to those currently facing eviction, people who make below 50% of the average median income and those with an adult who has been unemployed for more than 90 days. So far, 79% of those approved have had average median incomes below 30%, according to the Virginia Legal Aid Society.

Three attorneys, including Allman, are handling eviction cases in the Suffolk office, and another will come on board later this month. Allman herself has nearly 70 clients, while the other attorneys, while still handling more than double their normal caseload, have about 20 each.

While her office doesn’t have the capacity to handle every eviction case, tenants — and landlords — can apply on their own for money through the program.

When someone is overdue on rent, a landlord may give that person a five-day notice to pay the amount due or risk being evicted — there is a 30-day period if no money is involved and someone is being evicted for other reasons.

A majority of the time, that notice is served in person or by registered mail, and the landlord is expected to keep a copy of the notice and how it was delivered.

A landlord in Suffolk can also ask the Sheriff’s Office to serve the notice to all involved tenants, and the sheriff’s return put on the original copy and mailed to the landlord or that person’s attorney.

The next step after the five-day period has expired and the landlord has not received the rent due is for that landlord to get a summons for unlawful detainer from the clerk of the court and have the clerk issue it to everyone named in the landlord’s affidavit, to be served on tenants at least 10 days before the court date.

At an unlawful detainer hearing, a judge determines whether a court-ordered eviction can go through. If the court rules in favor of the landlord, they can get a writ of possession from the court, which gives the sheriff authority to evict the tenant and that person’s belongings, allowing the landlord to regain possession of the property.

If a tenant does not show up for the unlawful detainer hearing, the court may grant the landlord immediate possession of the property, known as a judgment by default. At that point, it’s at least another 72 hours before a tenant can be lawfully evicted.

The Suffolk General District Court docket, as of Aug. 3, shows 67 unlawful detainer hearings scheduled weekly on Wednesdays over the next eight weeks. General District court dockets in the rest of Western Tidewater represented by the Suffolk Legal Aid office show 37 unlawful detainer cases — 19 in Isle of Wight, 12 in Franklin and six in Southampton County.

Allman said that while her office can’t get to every single case, it is committed to helping everyone facing eviction to know what resources and rights are available to them.

She said she has heard landlords in court tell judges that they had offered the program to people and they don’t respond.

However, Allman said many people don’t understand what the program is, or that the landlord may be asking for income documentation. And she said it isn’t in the best interest for landlords to pursue an eviction because they aren’t likely to collect a judgment against a tenant because that person will not have the means to pay.

“I can honestly say that this is the first time in my career where I have the ability in the landlord-tenant area to be able to create a win-win for both the tenant — my client — and the landlord,” Allman said. “We just had never had these resources, and it’s so important that landlords understand what the program does, that it is in their best interest to take advantage of that and to participate in the program, and that tenants understand that it’s available and they should use it.”

How to get help

The Virginia Rent Relief Program will provide financial help for renters to help pay for rent owed at any point back to April 1, 2020, or for rent due for the next three months (if they will not be able to pay). The total payments currently may not exceed 15 to 18 months of rental assistance per household, and they must meet the following criteria:

  • Have a valid lease agreement — written or oral — at the time of application. If it’s an oral agreement, Virginia Legal Aid has its own form that a tenant and landlord can fill out documenting the lease terms
  • Have a monthly rent amount that is at or below 150% fair market rent. In Suffolk and Isle of Wight County, that amount is $1,440 for a studio or efficiency, $1,458 for one-bedroom, $1,720.50 for two, $2,427 for three and $2,979 for four. In Franklin and Southampton County, those amounts are $844.50 for a studio or efficiency, $1,035 for one bedroom, $1,179 for two, $1,644 for three and $2,041.50 for four.
  • Have a gross household income at or below 80% of the area median income. In Suffolk and Isle of Wight County, that amount is $47,350 for a one-person household, $54,100 for two, $60,850 for three and $67,600 for four. In Franklin and Southampton County, that amount is $37,000 for one, $42,250 for two, $47,550 for three and $52,800 for four.
  • Have experienced a financial hardship directly or indirectly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including an increase in expenses such as child care, medical bills, food cost and utility bills, have been laid off or had their place of employment closed, inability to find work due to COVID-19, reduction or elimination of child or spousal support, having to stay at home with children due to distance learning, unable or unwilling to work due to workplace illness from COVID-19 and not able to work and/or missed hours due to contracting, being exposed or having to quarantine due to COVID-19.

Those looking to apply for the Rent Relief Program or have questions about the program can go online to bit.ly/RRPReferral or call 1-833-663-8428, press 4, and leave a message. People can also call the Virginia Legal Aid helpline for assistance at 1-866-995-5595.