Vir­ginia is for land­lords

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY RE­BECCA MAU­RER

Matthew Des­mond’s 2016 best­seller, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the Amer­i­can City,” which told the story of land­lords and ten­ants in Mil­wau­kee, el­e­vated the con­ver­sa­tion around the na­tion’s evic­tion cri­sis. Des­mond and a team of re­searchers fol­lowed up with the new Evic­tion Lab, the first ef­fort to cre­ate a com­pre­hen­sive data set of evic­tions tak­ing place across the United States.

Evic­tion Lab’s data set will almost cer­tainly lead to ground­break­ing in­sights on the af­ford­able hous­ing cri­sis, which is made all the more im­por­tant by Des­mond’s com­pelling the­sis that evic­tions cause poverty, rather than poverty caus­ing evic­tions.

Even a quick re­view of the first cut of data shows its im­mense power. Five of the top 10 ci­ties with the high­est evic­tion rates in the coun­try are in Vir­ginia. In Rich­mond, 21 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion lives be­low the poverty line, and the evic­tion rate is more than 11 per­cent. Two hours up In­ter­state 95, in Washington, the poverty rate is sim­i­lar — about 18 per­cent — but the evic­tion rate is just 2.6 per­cent, less than a quar­ter of the Rich­mond rate.

Why? Although the data may even­tu­ally lead to many con­clu­sions, this dis­par­ity in evic­tion rates points us to one start­ing place: vari­able state and lo­cal land­lord-ten­ant laws.

Evic­tions are gov­erned by lo­cal laws that vary across ju­ris­dic­tions. Vir­ginia makes the evic­tion process fast and ap­peal­ing to land­lords. For in­stance, once a renter is late to pay and has been served with a writ­ten no­tice, a land­lord need give a ten­ant only five days to pay the out­stand­ing bal­ance be­fore fil­ing for evic­tion. In the District, a ten­ant gets 30 days to pay.

Ad­di­tion­ally, in the District, a ten­ant can de­fend against an evic­tion by ar­gu­ing that the land­lord has breached his or her obli­ga­tions by not keep­ing the unit in good con­di­tion. This gives land­lords an in­cen­tive to bet­ter main­tain the hous­ing stock and gives ten­ants some mod­icum of power, even if they have fallen be­hind on rent.

In Vir­ginia, this de­fense is al­lowed only if the ten­ant can post all the back-due rent. Where almost half of Amer­i­cans would have to bor­row or take out a loan to cover an un­ex­pected $400 ex­pense, this can be an in­sur­mount­able bar­rier for a ten­ant who is al­ready be­hind on rent.

With lim­ited ju­di­cial over­sight of the con­di­tion of the property in Vir­ginia, the land­lord can more eas­ily flip the unit to an­other ten­ant with­out fix­ing the liv­ing con­di­tions, which sets up the property for an­other failed ten­ancy.

Ac­cess to an af­ford­able ten­ant’s at­tor­ney also varies wildly across ju­ris­dic­tions. The ef­fort to of­fer a guar­an­teed right to coun­sel in civil cases, par­tic­u­larly evic­tions, has picked up steam in re­cent years. Ini­tial re­search shows that ten­ants with coun­sel fare sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter than un­rep­re­sented ten­ants in evic­tion pro­ceed­ings. The Evic­tion Lab may of­fer additional data on this point as ci­ties be­gin to im­ple­ment right-to-coun­sel pro­grams.

There are years of work to be done from the data gath­ered by the Evic­tion Lab. The raw num­bers give us a sense of the scope of the evic­tion cri­sis but only just scratch the sur­face of how it came to be and what to do next.

There are par­al­lels to how states learned from the fore­clo­sure cri­sis. States dif­fer on whether a fore­clo­sure process must go through the courts (a ju­di­cial fore­clo­sure) or whether a bank can re­pos­sess a home with­out hav­ing to file an ac­tion (a non­ju­di­cial fore­clo­sure). Un­sur­pris­ingly, the less over­sight by the courts, the higher the rates of fore­clo­sure dur­ing the cri­sis. By an­a­lyz­ing the sta­tis­tics about the dif­fer­ing fore­clo­sure rates, pol­i­cy­mak­ers were able to suc­cess­fully ad­vo­cate for the im­ple­men­ta­tion of me­di­a­tion pro­grams and ju­di­cial pro­ce­dures that act as a check on the power of banks.

Des­mond’s re­search pro­vides us the op­por­tu­nity to trans­late data into pol­icy re­form in the con­text of renters. This work is all the more im­por­tant be­cause it is al­ready far eas­ier to evict renters than to fore­close on a home, yet both events in­flict sim­i­lar harm and trauma. His­toric lend­ing pat­terns sys­tem­i­cally stripped home­own­er­ship op­por­tu­ni­ties from com­mu­ni­ties of color, mean­ing that the bur­den of un­fair evic­tions falls on those same com­mu­ni­ties.

Cre­at­ing a fair and just evic­tion process is a nec­es­sary step to a more fair and just so­ci­ety. States such as Vir­ginia should give ten­ants the dig­nity of a fight­ing chance.

The writer is a lawyer.


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