EDITORIAL: Evictions draw inquiry from state

Charlottesville by no means makes the list of cities where residents suffer from the highest eviction rates.

But Charlottesville-with an interest in affordable housing where the need for evictions is minimized-should pay attention to a new state study that will address some key issues:

Are evictions the result of tenants’ poverty, coupled with the high costs of housing created by restrictive land-use policies? Or are they the product of bad state laws that give landlords an unfair advantage over tenants in financial crisis?

In its very first meeting, differences of opinion over these questions seemed to divide the new study group.

The work group, an arm of the Virginia Housing Commission, was established because the commonwealth fared poorly in a study of eviction rates. In a list of the nation’s 10 worst big cities in terms of evictions, five are Virginia localities: Richmond, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Chesapeake, with Richmond having the second-highest eviction rate in the country.

That data was compiled by a research team led by a Princeton sociologist. But a lawyer for some of Virginia’s landlords questioned the data, saying it failed to differentiate between nonpayment of rent versus other issues, such as tenant involvement in drugs and violence.

Presumably, evictions for reasons such as lawbreaking would be upheld by all right-thinking Virginians. By contrast, evictions traced to bad public policy-and some critics argue that poverty is tied to policy-rightly could be mitigated by policy changes.

But if that’s the case, the study group would have to pinpoint the issues that lead to poverty, and would have to come up with broad-reaching reforms that could alleviate poverty.

It would have to identify the problems that cause a lack of affordable housing, and then it would have to devise policy changes that would be acceptable to a variety of special interests. As an example of the difficulties:

Some critics say that restrictive zoning causes a lack of affordable housing by driving up property prices and construction costs; other residents support such zoning because it provides ways to protect property from overdevelopment and overuse. These questions are continually simmering in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, where land-use policies and growth goals are subject to dynamic change.

Meanwhile, one member of the work group argued that the fact that Virginia placed five cities in the worst-10 list virtually constitutes de facto evidence that the problem is in Virginia law. Poverty exists everywhere. So do problems in providing sufficient affordable housing.

“Those aren’t unique to the commonwealth of Virginia,” said Laura Lafayette, CEO of the Richmond Association of Realtors. “There is something in our state law that is contributing to the situation in which we find ourselves.”

Where’s the culprit? State law? Local housing and land-use policies? The universal problem of poverty?

It could be all these things, in combination.

The Virginia Housing Commission has been given an enormous task. But if it can isolate the cause of excessive convictions and, further, if it can find solutions, all of Virginia will benefit-from Chesapeake to Richmond to Charlottesville.

This article provided by NewsEdge.