As rent relief ends, concern grows for pandemic-impacted Roanoke renters | Govt and Politics
Cancellation of his summer job caused a Roanoke schoolteacher to miss rent for one month last year, and now his family faces possible eviction, similar to others across the city and region rebounding from coronavirus-induced hardships, even as pandemic-era renter protections expire.
Faced with an eviction notice, Vincent Brown said he applied to the state for rent relief in April, but did not hear back about his status in time for one of the eviction-related hearings held in Roanoke General District Court on May 24.
Late fees and a general increase in the cost of living have kept Brown behind on that one month’s rent, he said during a phone call last week.
“I’m doing the best I can. I pay the rent, I pay the lights, I pay the water. I pay my car, I pay the insurance. I pay everything,” Brown said. “I just don’t have any extra when I’m done … to pay that back rent.”
The special education teacher for Roanoke City Public Schools said his usual summer job working in the division warehouse was canceled last year due to pandemic precautions, leaving him short on rent for that August. Now Brown, 42, his wife and their three teenagers are contesting an eviction notice from property management.
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“They’re continuously charging me late fees, which makes me look like I’m further behind than I am,” Brown said. “I’m paying now, but I’m waiting on rent relief, and I’m playing catch-up from being hit by the pandemic.”
The Brown family’s is one story of the coronavirus’ economic impact in Roanoke, and one case out of the roughly 3,000 evictions filed in court here since March 2020, according to web tracker data compiled by the Legal Services Corp.’s Civil Court Data Initiative.
Judge Francis Burkart continued Brown’s case to July, because Brown applied for the Virginia Rent Relief Program. The state RRP fund was created in early 2021, using more than $700 million from federal coronavirus relief allocations to pay off rent owed by pandemic-affected people.
“That program is ending, but it’s helped out a lot of people,” Burkart said of Virginia rent relief during May 24 court proceedings. “If the rent relief program comes through and everybody is satisfied, then nobody needs to be here.”
The rent relief money usually took about 45 days from application to arrival, Burkart said. As long as tenants applied for relief, the judge usually extended their evictions cases to give more time for the money to show up.
Since the program’s inception early last year, more than 3,500 households in the Roanoke and New River valleys received rent relief totaling at least $18 million, according to data provided by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.
Roanoke alone accounts for more than 2,000 regional rent relief recipients, totaling $10.8 million sent to the city’s residents, according to the DHCD data as of March 31. About half of Roanoke’s almost 100,000 residents are renters, demographic data said.
But it’s unclear what level of protection or assistance will be available for Virginia renters moving forward. With funds drying up, the rent relief program closed to new applicants May 15.
The Legal Aid Society of Roanoke Valley helped almost 500 low-income people file applications for approximately $2 million in rent relief, said Mona Raza, a staff attorney at the nonprofit who specializes in landlord-tenant law.
“We saw all kinds of families and some individuals … just all kinds of people,” Raza said of rent relief applicants. “People are still calling, but unfortunately, it’s over.”
Spurred by a federal moratorium, eviction filings in Roanoke dropped significantly at the start of the pandemic, and as of late April were still about half as frequent in the court system as pre-pandemic averages, according to Legal Services Corporation data.
The data shows 139 eviction filings in Roanoke this April, compared to 22 evictions filed in April 2021, where the normal average in April is 277 filings.
“Right now we’re kind of in a lull, sort of coasting along,” Raza said of the city’s eviction caseload. “But there’s probably going to be a tsunami coming in.”
Raza said a wave of evictions could be looming later this summer, once the last of the state rent relief money is doled out and as tenants’ leases are not renewed.
“There’s an incentive because of the housing market for landlords to sell, or to raise the rents,” Raza said. “Now there’s no rent relief program, and the rents are increasing. So tenants are kind of in a bind again.”
Legal Aid and other organizations have been in discussions with city government to find additional aid for Roanoke renters, Raza said.
“If someone applied for rent relief, then it was very likely that they were going to get help,” Raza said. “There will probably be some news coming out about where people can go to get some help with their rent, but it’s not going to be anything like this program has been.”
For people facing eviction, it is important to attend court hearings, and to reach out to a lawyer for help, she said. Legal Aid provides free consultation to low-income people, and can make sure landlords are adequately following eviction law.
Russell Potter reached out to Legal Aid for help after his apartment lease expired and the landlords did not want to renew it for a fourth year.
His monthly rent at Brandon Point Apartments increased by about $90 since moving in, Potter said. The 73-year-old chess instructor said he is struggling mightily to find an affordable place to move into next, and he has lost income canceling classes to fight his eviction.
“We’ve got a crisis going on here … People are really suffering,” Potter said. “Where do people go without much money?”
Potter said some sort of rent control and an increase in affordable housing availability are needed in the region to keep people from homelessness. A study in 2020 identified need for at least 5,300 additional affordable rental units in the Roanoke Valley and Alleghany Highlands.
“Wake up and look around. You’re looking at a calamity when winter comes around here,” Potter said. “There are not enough housing units being built, and the ones that are being built are skyrocketing in price for no good reason.”
Legal Aid has helped Potter stay in his apartment, still paying rent past the expiration of his lease in December 2021, he said. But he fears the day when sheriff’s deputies come to serve the eviction notice for good.
“Right now, my situation is kind of bleak,” Potter said. “I eventually will be visited by the sheriff at the door.”