Rapidly rising rents coupled with already-high costs of living are driving people out of their homes while governments take limited action—or none at all.
The most recent report from global commercial real estate services firm Newmark indicated in the third quarter of 2022, Loudoun had seen effective rents in multifamily buildings going up 10% year-over-year. That was considered a slowdown—in the first quarter of 2022, the same report showed 14% growth.
Meanwhile, special COVID-19 pandemic-related protections against evictions in Virginia expired on June 30. Federal ARPA and CARES Act money, some of which was directed toward housing costs, has stopped coming. Virginia’s Rent Relief Program, which disbursed more than $1 billion, stopped taking applications in May and ran out of money in October.
Data collected by nonprofit law firm Legal Services of Northern Virginia shows evictions and eviction filings in Loudoun trended upwards in the latter half of 2022, from 10 filings and three evictions in March up to 84 filings and 61 evictions in December.
Those evictions were also marked by a spike in November, when one law firm filed for 99 evictions on Nov. 30 at various apartment complexes. In 31 one of those cases, the court entered a default judgment, a ruling possible if the defendant misses the hearing, and entered judgments totaling more than $2.3 million plus court costs and attorney fees. In total there were 167 eviction filings in November and 14 evictions.
New Virginia Majority organizer Sofia Saiyed said for some people—including people who don’t speak English fluently—those courthouse filings can be particularly intimidating, and they may simply leave rather than fight for their rights through a complicated court proceeding. Meanwhile, she said, legal aid services are fully booked, and it can take a while to get a call back.
“The notices come in English, and there’s many steps in the process,” she said. “If someone gets that initial letter, it’s actually going to be a while before they actually have to leave their home, but people don’t know that, and a lot of people leave before the actual process is done, because they don’t know what’s going on and they don’t want the police showing up at their house.”
Sofia Saiyed presents a report that New Virginia Majority put together while working with Loudoun County Department of Housing and Community Development on Dec. 16, 2022. The group asked the county to launch a rent buy-down program with $12 million of ARPA funding.
Eviction By Any Other Name
One person who lost her house, and who spoke anonymously through Saiyed acting as Spanish language interpreter, lived through that. When she first moved into her Loudoun apartment complex in 2010, the management office had three Spanish-speaking staff who she said helped a lot. They were responsive to issues and complaints and would explain if residents got notifications in English.
The original manager got sick and had to leave, and the staff started changing. The renter had two accidents, first a car accident, then a fall at work that hurt her foot, requiring surgery.
That made it impossible for her to work her dishwashing job. She went out looking for help, and did get some government assistance, which ended after three months. Meanwhile, her husband kept working to support them and their two children.
Then she started having trouble with the people in the management office. She’d never been late on rent before, she said, and one month asked for forbearance while she scraped together the money to pay rent but was hit with a $150 late fee. Complaints about bedbugs, cockroaches and faulty wiring in the building went unanswered or were blamed on her. And her rent, which had gone up steadily while she lived there, started climbing more quickly every six months. A relative moved in to help share the expenses, and after he moved out, she rented out one of her rooms to make ends meet.
That got her kicked out, and their money problems only snowballed. The apartment manager told her in November she wouldn’t be able to renew the lease and had to be out by the end of the year. A request for an extension on the December rent was denied. On Dec. 29, they were still short $400, with no idea how to put together a deposit for a new apartment. A person at the courthouse explained they couldn’t be kicked out that quickly, but she said a call for help to the Sheriff’s Office was never answered. They considered sleeping in the car.
Ultimately, they were able to find a new place. One of her husband’s coworkers lent them the $400. From her kids’ school they found out about a rent-controlled apartment complex, where they applied and were approved—although it is still more expensive than before, she said. She started working again and recently finished physical therapy, but she’s getting limited hours and only making about $300 a week.
She said there many other people who have problems affording their apartments, but who don’t speak up. Her case would never appear in the official eviction statistics—there was never a court proceeding. And she said if people don’t speak out together, nothing will change.
Government Slow to Act
“Pie in the sky, the big picture solution is that there needs to be community-owned housing,” Saiyed said. “There need to be community land trusts, community cooperatives—basically housing that is not the private market, because the market is not going to create housing for working class folks. And even when we try to use public-private partnerships to create affordable housing, it doesn’t create affordable housing that is affordable enough.”
But in the meantime, New Virginia Majority was among many organizations that threw their support behind a state bill attempting to curb high rent increases, introduced by Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-33).
“Much of this dynamic is attributed to the large financial firms and hedge funds that have purchased residential properties in the commonwealth and then immediately turn around and increase rental costs for those tenants. We’re not talking about the mom-and-pop apartment owner or the folks who are really working hard,” Boysko said at the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology, of which she is also a member. “Many of these people, who have lived in their communities for years, can’t afford these dramatic rent increases and they are facing eviction. These investment firms that are capitalizing on this are reaping significant profits, and they’re taking them back to other states … and our citizens are the ones who are at risk.”
State Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-33) and Loudoun County Supervisor Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn) take part in a meeting between state legislators and the county board Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022.
The bill would have allowed localities to adopt ordinances limiting rent increases to growth in the regional Consumer Price Index, allowing for exemptions if the net operating income is not keeping up or other reasons established by the locality. And it would exempt buildings 15 years old or newer, owners of four or fewer units, and a range of other buildings such as religious facilities, residential programs licensed by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, or licensed assisted living facilities.
A long line of citizen groups—New Virginia Majority, The Virginia Student Power Network, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the Legal Aid Justice Center, the Virginia Poverty Law Center, Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia—and the Loudoun County government lined up to support the bill.
The committee voted it down. Facing a likely vote to kill the bill, Hampton Sen. Mamie Locke (D-2) proposed tabling it for now and sending it to the Virginia Housing Commission for study. The committee voted 9-5 for that. Lined up to oppose it were industry groups including the Apartment and Office Building Association, the Northern Virginia Apartment Association, and the Virginia Realtors.
“I’m frustrated by the lack of their willingness to accept legislation, and I’m hoping that they will actually come to the table and work with me,” Boysko said in an interview. “I’ve been talking about this with them for months, and they expressed their opposition. I asked, ‘what would you do?’ They acknowledged that they don’t see a viable solution that they’re willing to get behind.”
While the bill languishes in a study for another year, the rent spikes and evictions—both formal and informal—will continue.
“We have come to what I believe is a crisis,” Boysko said. “I have constituents who are being kicked out of their homes, who are being evicted. I have constituents who have nowhere else to turn. The homeless shelters are full. In winter in Fairfax County, we have people who are camping out in front of the Board of Supervisors sidewalk because they are saying, ‘somebody needs to pay attention to us.’”
Meanwhile, an idea from New Virginia Majority to tackle some of those informal evictions and invisible struggles sat in the county building without public action for months, then quietly died, replaced by a more conventional rental assistance, eviction legal aid, and a new software system.
Loudoun County residents and members of New Virginia Majority hold signs asking for help with rent at Loudoun County Department of Housing and Community Development on Dec. 16, 2022.
Supervisors last April set aside $12 million in the county’s last tranche of ARPA funding for preserving affordable housing and offering displacement services, without directing a specific program. Saiyed said New Virginia Majority worked with the county Department of Housing & Community Development over six months to craft a rent buy-down program, sending that money to landlords to replace part of rent payments.
“There are many people in the county who are doing everything they can to make sure they don’t fall behind on payments, including getting roommates, working seven days a week … taking out loans, so they don’t appear on any statistics as getting help,” she said.
She said the people who are struggling to stay ahead on rent, paying more than half their income but not missing payments, make up “an invisible crisis.
County Public Information Officer Glen Barbour said the county’s work to use that ARPA money was complicated when the Virginia Rent Relief Program ran out of money. That forced the county to reevaluate how to best use limited funding to serve the needs of the community.
That resulted in a Board of Supervisors vote on Jan. 10 to put that money into helping residents of the mobile home park in Lucketts, which is up for sale, relocate; extend the term of expiring rent-controlled homes; and provide $5.75 million toward rental assistance, $1.5 million for legal and financial assistance for people facing eviction filings, and $2 million to replace a Department of Housing software system that the vendor will retire next year.
County Chair Phyllis J. Randall said from the dais that, after long discussions with county staff, it appeared that approach would let the county help more people.
“The number of residents that we can assist with that [rent buy-down] program is going to be a much smaller number than the number of residents that we can assist with rental assistance and displacement services,” she said. “Whatever crisis, or whatever they might have going on in their lives, it gives them breathing room to figure out what’s next.”
And, she said, “we wish we had more money.”