A Place to Call Your Own

Housing advocates, pro bono lawyers and city leaders work to address the root causes of eviction and develop solutions

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On Feb. 4 from 6 to 8 p.m., “Who’s Putting Our House in Order?” the final installment of The Valentine’s 2019-20 Controversy/History conversation series, will explore the complex housing challenges facing the Richmond region, including high eviction rates, the legacy of public housing and more.

Speakers include Jovan Burton, director of implementation at the Partnership for Housing Affordability; Monica L. Jefferson, vice president and COO of Housing Opportunities Made Equal; Martin D. Wegbreit, director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society; and John Gregory, principal at Lynx Ventures.

An eviction can be a scarlet letter for families looking for a home or apartment, often leading to a move to substandard housing and, in turn, a lower overall quality of life for parents and children.

It all comes back to having a stable place to call one’s own, local housing advocates say.

“We know that housing is that building block of people’s lives for sustainability,” says Monica Jefferson, vice president and COO of Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME). “If you have stable housing, that impacts your health, that impacts you mentally, physically and emotionally. It allows you to have a better, productive life, [to] be a part of a community and neighborhood.”

Jefferson is one of the driving forces behind Richmond’s eviction diversion program and co-chair of the eviction task force, two local efforts to address and shrink the city’s staggering eviction rates. Both were formed by Mayor Levar Stoney last year in response to a Princeton University study that revealed Richmond had 6,345 evictions in 2016, making it the holder of the second-highest eviction rate of all major American cities behind North Charleston, South Carolina.

The eviction diversion program is designed to be a one-time assistance service for Richmond tenants who are gainfully employed but who find themselves unable to catch up with mounting rent debts due to worst-case situations like a family or medical emergency. The program was launched officially last October and successfully diverted 76 evictions in 2019, according to a HOME report. The average rent amount owed by program participants was $866.91, and the program is currently on track to divert between 300 and 500 evictions in its first year, Jefferson said at an event in January.

The program is a collaborative effort between the city, HOME, Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, the court system, the Greater Richmond Bar Foundation and Firms in Service, a local pro bono legal assistance program. Jennifer Daglio, a senior attorney at Hunton Andrews Kurth, is one of the pro bono lawyers helping with the city’s eviction diversion program. These lawyers can often be found standing in the hallway of the John Marshall Courthouse in downtown Richmond, she said, where eviction lawsuits in the city are heard.

Daglio felt drawn to the program after learning of Richmond’s eviction rate and says her background handling transactions in the courtroom comes in handy when serving as a volunteer conciliator — a neutral intermediary who oversees negotiations between tenants and landlords who agree to participate in the program as they work out a payment plan for the back rent.

The issue also hits home as a parent of four, she says.

“Understanding how housing stability is such an integral piece of family life and everyone, children doing well in school and … parents being able to go to work, you need to be able to know your housing is stable,” she says. “This program allowed us to try to work with a group of tenants to try to get some stability for them, and an important piece is that this is a distinct population of tenants who have the financial resources to make their ongoing rent, they just have had a temporary setback.”

A recently released report by the Partnership for Housing Affordability also shines a light on housing challenges in Richmond, Ashland and Hanover, Chesterfield and Henrico counties. Key takeaways include rent increases outpacing the growth of median household incomes across the region, while the amount of dedicated affordable apartments accounts for less than 20% of all new rental unit construction over the past five years.

Lagging income levels compounded by entrenched discriminatory housing practices also have blocked the region’s black and Latino populations from purchasing homes in recent years. In 2017, white homebuyers accounted for an average of 26 home sales in the area daily, while black buyers purchased an average of six per day and less than two per day were sold to Latinos, the report states.

In his State of the City address last week, Stoney announced that his administration will soon unveil an Affordable and Equitable Housing Strategy, which will establish policies such as tax-deferral programs for low-income homeowners and housing rehab programs with the goal of increasing housing opportunities for marginalized groups like seniors, youth aging out of the foster care system and those in need of mental health resources.

Martin Wegbreit, director of litigation at Central Virginia Legal Aid Society and co-chair of the city’s eviction task force, says the 17-member panel has landed on five main funding recommendations for the city to assuage the eviction crisis: a pilot early intervention program that would target tenants at risk of losing their homes before an eviction is filed against them, help for extremely low-income city residents earning between 0% and 30% of the area median income, landlord and tenant education programs, studying the feasibility of creating a centralized “one-stop shop” for housing services, and creating a paid city staff position to focus on the issue.

“The eviction diversion program is just one tool in what we hope will be a whole toolbox,” Wegbreit says.

Source: Richmond Magazine