Lynchburg’s Unseen Eviction Crisis

Candice Robertson was surprised when the sheriff’s deputy showed up at her front door.

Her property manager said the case had been dismissed. In fact, she was on her way to court when he called and told her she didn’t need to show up.

But a few days later a sheriff’s deputy with a writ of possession in hand was standing at her doorstep, telling her she had three days to move out—and that wasn’t all. The court also ordered her to pay back two months’ rent plus late fees and court filing costs, totaling $1,708—roughly what Robertson, a single mother of three boys, made in a month.

“I was shocked,” Robertson said. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t have a long time to get out.’ It was scary.”

Robertson was one of roughly 1,200 Lynchburg renters who are evicted from their homes every year, according to a report released in May by the Virginia Legal Aid Society (VLAS) of Lynchburg.

The report shows that over recent years Lynchburg’s eviction rate has steadily dropped from 10.5 percent in 2013 to 8.6 percent in 2016. It’s a substantial improvement, but Lynchburg’s eviction rate remains the fifth highest in Virginia for mid-sized cities

On average, more than three tenants are evicted daily, and despite new state laws to protect them that went into effect July 1, they are at the mercy of landlords, affordable housing shortages and a complex legal process that historically has favored property owners.

“There is a theory that [Virginia’s high eviction rate] is the perfect storm of low wages, high rent and laws that—until July—definitely favored landlords,” said Christine Marra, an attorney at the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

Lynchburg more than meets the conditions Marra describes. More than 55 percent of rental households (7,182) spend at least a third of their annual income on rent, according to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. While median rent for a two-bedroom apartment has increased by nearly 30 percent over the past decade, minimum wage has stagnated at $7.25 per hour, the lowest federally-mandated amount.

These conditions have made government-assisted housing in high demand, but the housing authority can only provide public housing and Section 8 vouchers to about 1,100 families. Every time the list opens, the housing authority receives hundreds of applications.

Already burdened by housing expenses, low-income families often are one paycheck away from missing rent. One unexpected medical bill or car repair can set them back financially—and once they miss rent on the first of the month, there is not much time to drastically improve their finances.

The day after a tenant is late on rent, a landlord can file a nonpayment notice, giving tenants five days to pay rent or face eviction. It may seem like a generous reprieve, but housing attorneys say it’s highly unlikely a tenant can come up with rent in that period of time.

“Most people who don’t have the money on the first of the month, don’t have it on the sixth, seventh or the eighth,” Marra said.

Marra says other states have extended the nonpayment period to 10 or 14 days, but efforts to extend this time window in Virginia have failed to pass the State Senate.

On the sixth day after nonpayment, the landlord can file an unlawful detainer for $58. If the tenant doesn’t show up to court for the hearing, as was the case with Robertson, a judge can grant a default judgment to the landlord.

“When you get a default judgment, there are very few questions asked,” said Jeremy White, managing attorney at the VLAS in Lynchburg.

White happened to be in court the day Robertson missed her hearing and overheard her property manager’s arguments for evicting her. “I was like, ‘Oh, that does not sound right,’” White said.

Robertson’s case, which involves Section 8 housing, is less common yet captures how much power a landlord can exert, even with federal regulations in place.

Her property manager handed her a nonpayment notice after the Lynchburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority withheld its portion of rent due to the unit not meeting federally-mandated housing quality standards. According to the LRHA, upon a yearly inspection, compliance managers found the house was not properly weatherized and told the property manager payment would be withheld until repairs were made.

Yet despite warnings from officials that nonpayment by the housing authority was not grounds for eviction, as stipulated in the Housing Assistance Payment contract signed by all parties, the property manager filed an unlawful detainer against Robertson.

“He got judgment that day for the rent that she never owed,” White said.

Through help from VLAS, Robertson was able to get her eviction overturned, but her case, bound to federal regulations for public housing, is the exception. Other renters whose landlords fail to provide safe living conditions may not have the same luck.

Unlike other states, Virginia doesn’t have escrow laws that allow renters to withhold payment if a landlord neglects to address unsafe conditions or code violations in the unit. This leaves renters with few options and exposes them to eviction.

“You find people who are living in places that are not habitable, their landlords refuse to make repairs, [so] they make repairs out of their own pocket and refuse to pay rent,” Marra said.

Lynchburg has regulations that require landlords to notify the city of rental units they own and to certify they are up to inspection. But housing attorneys say these regulations are difficult to enforce because the onus is on landlords to self report.

“It’s the choice of, do I kind of put up with this because I can afford it, or do I try to push forward and enforce my rights? Then the landlord in two months says, ‘Get out,’” White said.

While Virginia has made efforts to address its high eviction rates, such as limiting the number of times landlords can sue their tenants and requiring a mutually-agreed written lease, low-income renting families still have the odds stacked largely against them. Perhaps the most promising update is a new law that provides tenants more time to pay rent owed, but it only kicks in after an unlawful detainer has been filed.

By that time, the eviction clock is already ticking.

This column is part of a series that focuses on affordable housing in Lynchburg. Find other articles at lynchburgbusinessmag.com.

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