More renters’ rights? Extra time to pay? Group discusses ways to lower eviction rates

June 19–RICHMOND — Should tenants get more time to pay their rent each month? Should they have longer to get right with their landlord once they do miss a payment?

These were a couple of the suggestions on the table Tuesday when a group from the Virginia Housing Commission met to dive into detailed proposals to help curb the state’s sky-high eviction rates.

The two-hour back and forth largely consisted of tenant-friendly suggestions from housing advocates, which were met with skepticism from industry members.

For instance, one suggestion to essentially give tenants an extra couple of weeks to pay their rent each month was met with resistance from several representatives of industry groups.

“Would tenant behavior be changed and would more money be paid late?” asked Chip Dicks, a former delegate and long-time lobbyist for the Virginia Association of Realtors.

Others argued that it would effectively make rent due in the middle of the month rather than the beginning, upending schedules for landlords who have to make payroll and cover bills.

Helen Hardiman, a housing attorney, argued policy decisions shouldn’t be based on the small minority that would to abuse the system.

“Low-income people want to pay their rent,” Hardiman said. For many, that extension “is an extra few days to hustle, to see whose grass they can cut, to see whose auntie they can borrow money from.”

When Princeton researchers released data detailing local eviction rates in April, Virginia found itself in the hot seat. The state has five of the 10 large cities with the highest rates, as well as three of the five highest ranked mid-size cities. Those included Portsmouth, Norfolk, Hampton, Chesapeake and Newport News.

Martin Wegbreit with the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society described those rankings as “an embarrassment” for the state. That same phrase has been used by Congressman Bobby Scott and others when talking about the issue.

Despite some frustrating disagreements with industry representatives, Wegbreit described Tuesday’s progress as “halting steps forward.”

“Giving people more opportunities to pay the rent … shouldn’t be controversial,” he said. “The fact that they are willing to consider to give tenants more time to pay, that’s encouraging.”

He noted, however, that the devil is often in the details.

Several industry representatives pushed back against suggestions to give tenants more time to pay, arguing that they couldn’t see how that would incentivize payment and they didn’t think decisions should be made without more hard data.

The lack of reliable data has been a sticking point, with some contending that the much-talked-about rates from Princeton’s research are misleading.

One problem is that that much of the data people want — for instance, the number of times a landlord and tenant work things out after an eviction order has been sought — isn’t being tracked anywhere. A team at Virginia Commonwealth University is helping gather such data, according to housing advocates.

One major suggestion came at the tail end of the meeting, when Wegbriet suggested a state-mandated “warranty of habitability,” essentially a clause in a lease that guarantees a certain quality of housing.

As it stands, tenants have a hard time forcing landlords to fix up apartments that are in bad shape, and a renter can’t use poor condition as an argument against eviction.

Wegbriet said he knows that there will be a lot of stiff objection but “this would be a gamechanger,” but there was no further discussion on that suggestion Tuesday.

Tuesday’s meeting ended with no real consensus from the 15-person group, other than a promise of continued conversation.

The subgroup will be expected to make policy recommendations to address the eviction problem to the full commission in September. Those suggestions will be discussed and potentially taken up by state legislators for the 2019 General Assembly session.

This article provided by NewsEdge.