Housing Commission weighs options as eviction crisis looms in the distance.

RICHMOND- Since the end of Virginia’s original eviction freeze in June, 14,698 families have lost their homes. Several thousand more could have the same fate in the next two weeks. Of those at risk of losing their homes, most of them are Black and brown families.

While everyone acknowledges that’s a problem, the question is how to fix it. That was what the Virginia Housing Commission discussed on Thursday, as they held their last session for 2020.

The group acknowledged there’s a ticking clock, as Virginia’s current eviction freeze ends Dec. 31. As such, lawmakers discussed how to fix current programs and create new bills that could potentially help thousands of people facing housing insecurity.

To help curb this issue, lawmakers also checked in with Virginia’s Eviction Diversion Pilot program and the Rent Mortgage Relief Program.

“The primary goal is to keep people inside their homes during COVID-19 by utilizing money resources to make landlords and mortgage companies pull on outstanding payments to stabilize the housing market, protect public health and protect households experiencing hardship because of the pandemic,” said Erik Johnston with the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.

Rent and Mortgage Relief Program

During the General Assembly’s special session, Gov. Ralph Northam signed off on the creation of a Rent Mortgage Relief Program and an Eviction Pilot Program. Now it’s time for these programs to deliver on their promises. With the eviction freeze ending at the end of the month, it’s important these programs get people their monetary relief fast.

The RMRP is a program that’s designed to give financial assistance to anyone behind on rent and mortgage payments after April 20. As long as your household makes 80% or less than your area’s average income, you’re eligible to apply. But, the program will prioritize families making less than 50%.

Right now, all you need to apply is proof of income (pay stubs, bank statements, letter from employer, social security documents, pension), valid lease or mortgage statement or other documentation confirming the landlord-tenant relationship.

Who’s eligible for this program? So far, anyone who’s lost their jobs, faced reduced hours, lost spousal support or is unable to find work due to COVID-19. However, these benefits do not automatically cover you. You have to apply online through their website.

RELATED: Virginia’s Utility Bill Freeze Just Ended. This Could Make The Eviction Problem Worse.

Eviction Diversion Pilot Program

The Eviction Diversion Program, unlike many other rent relief programs, is supposed to prevent eviction in the first place. Localities fromThe DHCD has given the program over $3 million dollars to localities who’re accepted. With this money, the localities can create their own eviction prevention programs that will fit their unique issues.

However, the DHCD only anticipates giving grants to seven cities.

So far, the cities that will be prioritized are the ones with the highest eviction rates. These cities are Danville, Hampton, Norfolk, Petersburg ,Richmond, Chesapeake and Newport News.

Right now, localities have to turn in their applications by Jan. 8. If they’re accepted, the DCHD should give them their funding by Feb. 21.

Currently, the RMRP has distributed $41 million to 13,000 households in Virginia. Of the households that got payments, over 63% of them included children who were under eight years old. Also, Black households made up 52% of the people served by the EDPP.

Disparities in Housing Insecurity

According to Johnston, data evaluation played a huge role in the creation of the EDPP and RMRP. And what the data says that eviction hits Black households more than their non Black counterparts.

“Data is a huge component in (making evictions rare,” said Johnston. “We’re hoping to make sure that the effort is data focused.” Racial disparities in eviction existed long before COVID-19. But the pandemic, like its done to so many other societal issues, has only made it worse.

According to the Virginia Housing Commission, 36% of the families facing eviction in Virginia are Black. This is double the national average of 18%. When creating the EDPP and the RMRP, Johnston said that he encouraged local areas to collect data about the tenants facing eviction.

During the development process, the DCHD took these and other factors that could potentially make someone more at risk of eviction. Other factors include whether or not a single parent runs the household, domestic violence and the presence of children.

Developing Affordable Housing in NoVA

But those programs aren’t the only solutions being considered. At the beginning of this year, State Sen. Scott Surovell proposed SB638. If passed, this bill would require that any Northern Virginia city with a Metrorail station have at least 10% of their residential housing be “affordable units”. In order to qualify, a household making less than half of the area’s average median income must be able to afford it.

While the Housing Commission has kept this bill in limbo since April, they still didn’t feel comfortable enough Thursday to vote on the bill. There’s still some disagreements about where the funding is going to come from and how the localities will handle it. Also, several localities are conducting their own studies to better determine their housing needs.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: Sign Up For Dogwood’s Daily Newsletter

The Next General Assembly Session

The upcoming General Assembly Session is going to be shorter than most. According to lawmakers, they’re going to cover less bills than usual in order to narrow their priorities, mostly focusing on marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform.

According to the Legal Aid Justice Center, Virginia’s courts are supposed to hear 8,766 eviction hearings in the next eight weeks. If you or someone you know is at risk of eviction, contact the center for help. They can help you get in contact with rent relief services in your area, as well as letting you know your tenant rights in the age of COVID.

The Legal Aid Justice Center has locations in Richmond, Petersburg, Charlottesville and Falls Church.

Arianna Coghill is a content producer with the Dogwood. You can reach her at arianna@couriernewsroom.com