Kicked out of their house and living in a hotel the past five weeks, Antione Juniper’s kids sometimes call the place home.
“This is temporary,” he reminds them. It has to be — Juniper and his fiancee don’t make enough money to keep shelling out what should be a month’s rent check every week just to keep a roof over their family.
State and federal programs have invested billions of dollars since early last year to help tenants avoid eviction in the middle of a global health crisis. Those protections, which federal officials largely reinstated Tuesday after allowing them to expire, have reduced evictions in the state by about 60% from 2019 to 2020.
But many like Juniper have fallen through the cracks — he is among 20,000 Virginians and 6,600 Hampton Roads residents who have been forced from their homes since March 2020.
The region has long had notoriously high eviction rates — well before COVID-19. According to data released in 2018 by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Chesapeake had some of the worst eviction rates among cities with populations of 100,000 and above in 2016. Those cities ranked third, fourth, sixth and tenth among 313 places ranked in that population category.
Renters here — especially those who identify as Black, Hispanic and Asian — have been even more vulnerable through an economic recession that has slashed jobs and wages around the world.
Before the pandemic, Juniper was working as a landscaper for the City of Virginia Beach and as a barber at a locally owned shop on top of starting his own landscaping business.
Work dried up in March. The state ordered barbershops to close, and Juniper stopped doing landscaping projects because he didn’t want to risk bringing the virus into his house, where one of his kids has asthma. Plus, his seven children, ages 4 to 17, were going to school remotely and needed someone to watch them.
Juniper fell behind on rent. He asked his landlord for leniency, but he was summoned to court. Every knock at the door made Juniper tense.
Because he lost wages through the pandemic, Juniper qualified for help from the Virginia Rent Relief Program. He used it to pay the rent he owed to cover the rest of his lease, which ended in March.
He arranged for rent relief to cover three more months at the house, but his landlord turned down the money.
He wanted Juniper out.
With nowhere to go, Juniper and his family stayed in their house in Virginia Beach without paying rent, and his landlord filed to evict him again. This time, with an expired lease and nothing compelling his landlord to renew it, a judge ordered Juniper to vacate. He left at the end of June, just before a sheriff’s deputy was scheduled to show up.
His landlord, who couldn’t be reached for comment, is suing him for those three months and other damages.
Gov. Ralph Northam and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention established so-called eviction bans at the start of the pandemic to keep people from losing their homes during the coronavirus pandemic.
But Christie Marra, director of housing advocacy for the Virginia Poverty Law Center, stressed that Virginia’s state of emergency and the federal moratorium, which expired June 30 and on Saturday, respectively, did not guarantee all tenants were spared. Under public pressure, federal health officials announced a new moratorium late Tuesday to include protections for renters and tenants in areas where the coronavirus is spreading at higher rates.
“A moratorium would say, ‘Y’all are safe, and no one’s going to get evicted,’” Marra said during a community event held July 24 in Newport News to teach tenants about their rights and resources. In reality, Marra said, the government protections just give people more options to avoid an eviction if they can’t make rent because of pandemic-related losses.
Unable to evict for unpaid rent, some landlords have tried to do it over damages or lease violations. Some, like Juniper’s landlord, evict if a tenant stays after a lease ends. And others, Marra said, do it altogether illegally by cutting off power or changing the locks.
Unaware of moratorium limitations, some tenants thought their lease would automatically renew. But at the end of a typical 12-month lease, nothing compels a landlord to do that.
Still, pandemic protections have helped many. The RVA Eviction Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University found that court filings against tenants and evictions in Virginia have been significantly lower in 2021 compared with years past. For example, in Virginia Beach, there were 2,992 filings and 1,056 evictions from January to March 2019. The first three months of this year, there were 596 filings and 187 evictions.
Those protections have been bolstered by pre-pandemic housing reform in Virginia, which was triggered by Princeton’s eviction research and includes a rent relief program and a jump in pro-bono work to help tenants in need.
Many have sought relief through the pandemic. Holly Yates, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia, said staff are fielding 30% more housing cases this fiscal year compared with the one before. Researchers at the RVA Eviction Lab point to a U.S. Census Bureau survey that revealed among Virginia renters, 15% are behind on rent and among that group, 62% fear eviction in the next two months.
Millions still left
The federal eviction ban makes it harder for landlords to kick people out of their homes. Virginia’s rent relief program helps tenants pay rent.
Renters who make below 80% of their area’s median income and prove they can’t make rent because of the pandemic are eligible for the state’s rent relief program. But to qualify for the money, landlords have to cooperate.
The state program, administered by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, distributed about $312 million in relief aid, with close to one-third going to Hampton Roads households. More than half — $162 million — went to tenants who identify as Black. Overall, the program has helped 48,514 tenants over the past year, and on average, they each receive $6,167.
And Virginia still has more than $700 million left to spend.
Nationwide, Virginia has distributed more emergency rent money than any other state but Texas, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
Yates, the Legal Aid attorney, said management companies and larger landlords almost always participate without hesitation. Smaller landlords usually are willing to do so as well, but they often have questions or concerns.
Juniper’s situation is uncommon. Rent relief covered back rent and the remainder of his lease, but his landlord declined to take more state money to cover three additional months. Juniper was surprised he didn’t accept the rent relief since it was free money in his pocket. Instead, the landlord was left short for three months of rent.
Virginia’s pandemic state of emergency, which ended June 30, required landlords to ask for rent relief before evicting someone. Now that the emergency order has expired, tenant protection advocates hope lawmakers gathering in Richmond this week for a special session will adopt a new requirement.
Life after eviction
With an eviction on his record, Juniper has had little luck searching for a new home.
One landlord seemed willing to look past his history, and Juniper offered to pay three months rent up front. But another applicant doubled that amount and beat him to a lease.
He’s also up against a rental shortage that is pushing prices higher because people are moving less during the pandemic. Fewer rental openings have helped produce high housing demand, with houses selling fast and above asking price. Those sales, experts say, have helped drive up the region’s median rent by about 8%.
Michael Taylor, who oversees housing programs for the Newport News Department of Human Services, said some people who had been saving to buy a house are sitting tight and continuing to rent. They have good credit and stable work, and landlords are more likely to work with them than someone who’s lost work or their house in the pandemic.
Taylor’s office works with landlords who are willing to overlook unfavorable tenant records that may include past evictions or a low income. Staff help those landlords find tenants fast, supplementing incomes to make sure landlords get their rent.
But since March, some reliable landlords have backed out, “leery of rent relief and other programs because they’re worried about how long it’ll take to pay out,” Taylor said.
All those things make it hard for evicted people like Juniper to find a new home. He has dipped deeply into his savings — money he had hoped to use to buy a house and launch his business — to pay for two hotel rooms for him and his family. Between his jobs and his fiancee’s, they barely manage to afford it.
Many of his daily challenges are out of his hands, which he’s come to accept. But he feels optimistic about the things he can control. Later this month, he starts a new job landscaping for the City of Norfolk, which he hopes will boost his chances when he applies to rent a house. Most importantly, he said, his family remains together.
Josh Reyes, 757-247-4692, firstname.lastname@example.org