Daily Press (Sunday)

On evictions, data helps but policy reform needed

- By Steve Kast and Charvalla West Steve Kast is president and CEO of United Way of the Virginia Peninsula. Charvalla West is COO and director of community impact of UWVP.

We read with great interest the Oct. 5 editorial about our Virginia courts keeping track of the number and location of evictions. The editorial stated, “The data should be valuable, though, in helping Virginia better understand the reasons for the high eviction rate and figuring out what can be done to reduce the numbers.”

The United Way of the Virginia Peninsula (UWVP) relies on data to determine how to use limited resources for the most effective and efficient ways to keep individual­s and families housed. The collection of data on a broad level is a good first step.

Through the Community Assistance Network (CAN), stationed in our building, many of UWVP’s non-profit partners, and our full-time eviction court navigator, data is collected deliberate­ly and organicall­y working with tenants and landlords to find solutions for both sides. What experience and data tell us is that it is easier and cheaper to keep families housed than it is to re-house them.

The eviction process is complex with layers of factors to consider, coupled with thousands of different scenarios that involve real people and families. Blanket solutions are not realistic that may genericall­y benefit tenants over landlords or landlords over tenants.

Everyone benefited from the COVID relief programs, but now that they have ended, our community is still recovering. That recovery includes a recouping of losses — increased rent, increasing cost of food — and we know that families’ incomes are not keeping up. In addition, during COVID the law was changed to extend notices of eviction from five days to 14 days. Now, the law has reverted back to the five-day notice, limiting the time tenants have to pull their resources together. And as the editorial stated, “Landlords — business people who can’t provide charity indefinite­ly — must be considered” too.

There are measures that can be taken and should be encouraged and promoted through legislatio­n, media campaigns, courts and other community relief agencies.

We find that 20%-30% of people listed on eviction court dockets actually show up to explain or try to resolve their case; most do not participat­e because they are overwhelme­d with the process or do not think that being there will even help. If people are better informed and are given hope for resolution, then they are more likely to actively participat­e in the process.

UWVP’s court navigator works with tenants and landlords in the courts of Hampton, Newport News, Gloucester, Williamsbu­rg and York, and has made an impact according to the judges who oversee eviction cases. Perhaps legislatio­n and more resources could be allocated to place court navigators in every municipali­ty.

In addition to the barriers of the eviction process that people perceive and the trauma they experience over possibly losing their families’ shelter, there is the stigma of being considered poor that is difficult to overcome. When tenants are educated about the options and have accessibil­ity to support such as a court navigator, they may be more inclined to seek help before they get in the financial bind.

Businesses, property managers and landlords in general want their tenants to be better informed to avoid the eviction process, too, and we find that most of them are willing to share informatio­n and materials. Showing kindness and respect for all involved goes a long way toward resolution, too.

“Affordable housing” is one of the biggest economic challenges our communitie­s across America confront, and there are innovative long-term solutions. But in the short-term, let’s put in place the commonsens­e solutions that we know can work.

Data collected does make a difference for our community leaders and legislator­s to develop strategies and policy, and to direct resources where they make the most impact.

We applaud this bi-partisan initiative and The Virginian-Pilot & Daily Press editorial board for bringing attention to this important legislatio­n.

The true strength of this data collection will rest in our ability to use it to inform collective action.

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