By Emma Mansfield
The Rockbridge Area Relief Association has helped nearly 35% more households avoid evictions in the last five years, according to the organization’s data.
In 2018, the Lexington-based nonprofit organization responded to 148 eviction cases. In 2022, the number had risen to 199. The increase in calls comes after a lull in evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic when Virginia banned landlords from kicking people out of their homes for failing to pay rent.
“We are the busiest we’ve been in a while, which is good in the sense that we’re helping a lot of people. But it’s also not great because it means a lot of people need that help,” said Shadrey Sands, the organization’s program manager.
Executive Director Lindsey Perez said the loss of many COVID relief programs, and the elimination of the statewide moratorium are mainly to blame.
In 2020, Virginia implemented restrictions to protect residents from evictions. The moratorium temporarily prevented landlords from evicting tenants who were struggling with late payments. The suspension allowed residents fighting evictions to stay in their homes. It also gave them more time to pay their bills. But in June 2022, Virginia lawmakers got rid of the moratorium.
Inflation coincides with more rent stress in 2022
Last year, rent prices began to rise, and residents started to face steeper bills as prices for food and other goods also increased.
“It’s a constant vicious cycle,” said Bruce Sigler, Rockbridge County’s rental assistance administrator. “It takes away from their livelihood. So, that is, less money that they have to put food on the table, buy clothes, put gas in their car, and all these other things.”
In 2019, the median gross rent in Rockbridge County was $800, said Olivia Raines, the housing program manager at the Central Shenandoah Planning District Commission. In 2021, it was $857.
As a result, the Rockbridge Relief Association began to field more calls through its HelpLine from residents asking for assistance. The HelpLine is an online system that processes applications submitted by residents in need of financial support.
In 2022, the relief association received 1,652 requests for housing support through its HelpLine, nearly 600 more than the year before. Fifty-six percent of households requesting help were in Rockbridge County.
“It fulfills an essential need for people that are having trouble making ends meet – whether it’s a temporary setback or a long-term situation where they’re on a fixed income and just don’t have enough money coming in to pay these bills. In a time of emergency, that’s why RARA is here,” Perez said.
But many residents still wind up in the legal eviction process.
Eviction process in Rockbridge County lasts months
“It’s not an easy process. It kind of grinds,” said local property owner Ed Wetherell. “It gets abbreviated in television and movies. It’s a much more involved and drawn-out process than represented.”
In Rockbridge County, evictions are enforced by the sheriff’s office. The sheriff must give residents a notice of at least 72 hours before the scheduled eviction date. The sheriff will then return on the date and time of the notice to change the locks and, if necessary, physically remove residents from the property.
Residents have 10 days to appeal a court judgment. During that time, they must pay the court all overdue rent – an amount that is determined by the judge. To continue the process, the landlord can ask the court for a writ of eviction, which sets an eviction date.
The entire process usually takes several months. Wetherell said he dealt with one eviction case in Lynchburg that took about five to six months.
“It gets a little tedious,” Wetherell said. “The time is the most challenging part because you’re at the court’s mercy once you go into that process.”
An eviction also haunts residents, making it difficult for them to find another place to live.
“Once you’ve been evicted, especially if you still owe rent, then it’s much harder for you to ever pass a background check,” Sands said. “So, then you’re stuck in hotels permanently living or couch surfing or going to run-down properties that are abandoned.”
Evictions are not unique to Rockbridge County. Since March 2020, nearly 193,000 Virginia residents have filed for eviction, according to a report by The Eviction Lab at Princeton University.
But Virginia lawmakers have recently taken action to address the statewide issue. In January, Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced $2.9 million in grants for seven eviction reduction programs across the state. The grants will assist 48 communities in Virginia struggling to control rising eviction numbers.
“When we talk about evictions or when we talk about housing needs in general, a lot of people know this is an issue in this town,” Sands said. “It’s just about trying to figure out a way to solve it.”