Legislative efforts to tackle spiking eviction notices, housing and utility costs were mostly shot down during the Virginia General Assembly session.
Almost 193,000 eviction filings have been made in Virginia since March 2020. The monthly-updated data comes from the Princeton Eviction Lab, a group that makes nationwide eviction data public to increase awareness about housing, eviction and poverty. Not all eviction filings lead to an eviction, according to the lab. Among the 10 states tracked by the lab, Virginia ranks second, behind Pennsylvania.
Eviction filings and judgments are below pre-pandemic levels in Virginia, but Alexandria and the city of Richmond surpassed pre-pandemic levels by 7% and 6%, respectively, from October to December 2022. That is according to a quarterly data report from the RVA Eviction Lab, an organization at Virginia Commonwealth University that gathers eviction data.
“Virginia renters and landlords deserve common-sense and clear rules of the road to ensure everyone gets money they’re owed and to prevent unnecessary evictions,” stated Congresswoman-elect Jennifer McClellan via a text statement, in reference to two housing bills. McClellan announced her resignation as a state senator, effective March 7.
Utility costs are also increasing, but the General Assembly passed legislation aimed to protect consumers from rate hikes.
Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, introduced House Bill 1604, which allows the SCC to regulate utility rates when revenues exceed the utility’s authorized rate of return. This bill is identical to Senate Bill 1321, introduced by McClellan.
“The passage of HB 1604 and SB 1321 reflect the success of many efforts over the years to restore the authority of the SCC to lower electric rates when utilities overcharge customers,” stated Kajsa Foskey, economic justice outreach coordinator for the Virginia Poverty Law Center.
Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, had her bill SB 839 passed, which allows the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development director to conduct a comprehensive statewide housing needs assessment at least every five years. The director will develop a statewide housing plan with updates.
This bill is an important first step in documenting the need for affordable housing in Virginia, said co-patron Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax. It could help the General Assembly be more willing to allocate more money to affordable housing, Kory said.
FAILED HOUSING AND UTILITY BILLS
Capital News Service also reached out to lawmakers and advocates to get their take on the legislation that did not advance.
Bills to protect tenants that did not advance this session included:
— SB 941: Required landlords to fully refund security deposits to tenants within 15 business days, instead of 45 business days of a move-out inspection — if the tenant attended the inspection and they don’t owe rent as of the inspection date. There must not be damages beyond wear and tear.
“I’m encouraged by the momentum and I hope to see them pass both chambers in coming years,” McClellan stated, about SB 1330 and SB 941.
— SB 1127: Assembled a work group to evaluate policies to protect vulnerable rental occupants if facing eviction for noncompliance. Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
— SB 1141: Authorized any locality in Virginia to provide an affordable housing program by amending the locality’s zoning ordinance. The bill would help bring jobs and housing into balance to make them more accessible and affordable, said Kathryn Howell, associate professor and co-director of RVA Eviction Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“We’ve got all these jobs for people who are earning … less than 60% of the area median income,” Howell said. “We want to have housing that matches that.”
Emergency provisions were put in place during the pandemic to expand the waiting period. Advocates have made repeated efforts to make the mandatory waiting period permanent, said Laura Dobbs, a housing advocacy attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center.
— SB 1340: Prohibited a landlord from performing background and credit checks on a rental applicant unless the landlord met the outlined requirements. One requirement was an established written rental application policy that included a disclosure of all nonrefundable application fees and deposits.
— SB 1447: The SCC would establish limitations on the authority of investor-owned utilities to disconnect service for nonpayment of bills or fees during a statewide emergency declared by the governor, during temperature weather extremes, or on a Friday, weekend, state holiday, or day immediately before a state holiday.
“During instances of public emergency … everyone needs access to water, everyone needs access to heat in a snowstorm, everyone needs access to AC during a heatwave,” said Sheila Herlihy Hennessee, faith organizer with the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. The organization primarily lobbies in support of racial, social, and economic justice policies.
It is more efficient to keep people in their homes and “protect folks where they are,” Herlihy Hennessee said.
Despite the bills failing, “at least we were able to … start having that conversation about out of control rent in Virginia,” Dobbs said.
Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, did not respond to multiple requests for comment about SB 1278.
— HB 1875: Delayed utility disconnection for residential customers with certain serious medical conditions and households including residents under 12 months old, over 65 years old, or with disabilities.
This bill would directly benefit all consumers, said Foskey, with the Virginia Poverty Law Center. Utility shut-off data should be more accessible to see who is being affected, because it is an essential measure for consumer protection, she said.
Change takes time, Del. Kory said. Even if a bill is only heard in a subcommittee, it is a good first step. The information being shared could still help change legislators’ minds, she said.
“We just have to work towards it and elect people who think it’s an important goal,” Kory said.
By Darlene Johnson / Capital News Service