City officials, advocates sound alarm over rise in evictions in Richmond public housing neighborhoods

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Posted at 5:39 PM, Apr 05, 2024

RICHMOND, Va. -- Some Richmond city officials and housing advocates are sounding the alarm about what they've noticed to be an increase in evictions in public housing neighborhoods.

They're now calling on the housing authority to temporarily halt evictions.

According to Omari Al-Quadaffi, a housing organizer with the Legal Aid Justice Center who tracks evictions, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority brought about 130 families to court over the past three weeks, according to eviction dockets.

"We've not seen those kind of numbers from RRHA since before the pandemic," Al-Quadaffi said. "I think it's really high."

Al-Quadaffi sat in on eviction hearings this week, where families from Gilpin Court, Fairfield Court, Mosby Court, and more were at risk of losing their homes.

“It's particularly harmful right now because of the declared housing crisis and the way that housing costs are rising," Al-Quadaffi said. “It’s the perfect storm for massive homelessness.”

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Omari Al-Quadaffi

It's also caught the attention of city councilmembers including Stephanie Lynch, who pointed to an already strained and limited homeless shelter system.

“There is not much sunlight between being on the brink of poverty and living in a public housing authority unit — and being out on the street," Lynch said. "And then what help is available for people once they get there? Do we have a system where people can then easily access a front door and get into a family shelter? We don't."

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Stephanie Lynch

Lynch called the current situation "an unacceptable number of families."

So far in 2024, RRHA has executed 13 evictions, and 58 judgments have been adjudicated, according to RRHA.

According to data presented by RRHA in a March 14 council committee meeting, 1,300 families have an outstanding rent balance of $51 or more.

About 900 families are on a repayment plan, meaning those tenants must pay their current rent each month in addition to a portion of their debt.

However, more than 300 families have already defaulted.

Taking into account that the average family in public housing makes about $12,000 a year, Al-Quadaffi said the terms of the repayment plans are setting them up for failure.

“I’m seeing people that— they may be paying like $700 a month in rent, but then every month they have to pay like $250 extra for the repayment agreement. They can handle that for a few months maybe, and then it becomes unsustainable. They default on the repayment agreement, and then RRHA will bring the entire balance back forward on their ledger, and then take them to court for eviction," he said.

Lynch said it didn't "make sense" to enforce an "arbitrary" lease enforcement policy as families face systematic barriers, especially as children are trying to round out the school year and take their SOL tests.

“Doing these types of eviction behaviors and penalizing people who are in poverty is not the answer," Lynch said.

During last month's committee meeting, Councilmember Cynthia Newbille asked RRHA CEO Steven Nesmith to temporarily pause evictions for families whose homes had already been repossessed by the housing authority.

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Steven Nesmith

Nesmith responded at the time that he was "likely to do that."

However, according to RRHA's data, at least four evictions were served in April – after that council meeting.

This week, when CBS 6 asked Nesmith about councilmembers' concerns, he stated there's "no question" that evictions will occur – but only after RRHA presents many alternatives and assistance options for families to catch up on their delinquencies.

“While we are being compassionate, we can’t be too compassionate because there’s no such thing as free housing," Nesmith told CBS 6. "We can't get in the business of telling folks that they can live for free. We'd get in trouble by our regulators."

Nesmith added the United States Department of Housing has said if they did not collect rent, they'd be in violation of federal regulations.

He said failing to collect rent "enables bad behavior" and that there is already a "sense in the public housing community that RRHA does not evict."

“We’ve got some people with balances over $35,000, and there’s not enough funding out there. These are people, quite frankly, who just said, ‘Well I'm not going to pay my rent.’ And what do we do in those instances?” Nesmith said. "I know that in the city, the homeless shelter is at the brim, but we're in a pickled situation."

However, Lynch said she disagreed with his assertion.

"When we penalize them for being lower income and saying that they just don't want to pay the rent, I really question that," Lynch said. "I think most folks, if you actually speak with our residents, they want to pay their bills, they want to pay their rent, they want to clothe their kids, they want to feed their kids."

The council member also raised questions about the accuracy of the housing authority's accounting.

“I think RRHA needs to be held accountable, and we need to ensure that their ledger is accurate and that what they say people owe is really what they owe. There's a lot of questioning around that," Lynch said.

CBS 6 asked RRHA about the accounting concerns, but a spokesperson did not directly address that question in a statement emailed to CBS 6 on Friday.

But Nesmith previously told councilmembers in March that RRHA was conducting a "re-review" of rent calculations.

"RRHA is engaged with city administration, city council, and city stakeholders to figure out a way to assist residents subjected to eviction," an RRHA spokesperson wrote to CBS 6 Friday.

[4/6/2024 Correction: This article was updated to reflect that 1,300 RRHA residents have a balance of $51 or more, according to data presented to city council by RRHA. An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that 1,300 residents have a balance of $5,100 or more.]

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