Council approves eviction prevention resources

Council approves eviction prevention resources
Southern Towers tenants and members of local grassroots groups gathered outside the Alexandria courthouse during the summer of 2020 to protest evictions during the pandemic. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

City Council approved additional resources, including increased staffing and legal services, for Alexandria’s ongoing eviction prevention efforts during Tuesday night’s legislative meeting.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, as residents felt the financial strains of the lockdown, the city increased its eviction prevention efforts. In 2020, the city established its eviction prevention task force consisting of various city departments and community partners, which worked to provide legal advice and rental assistance to residents facing eviction.

During the meeting on Tuesday, Lisa Gilbert, Department of Community and Human Services economic support director, proposed that City Council provide additional resources for the city’s efforts. After the end of Virginia’s eviction moratorium in August, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed a budget bill that extended eviction protection until June 30, 2022. The new bill requires that landlords issue to tenants a 14-day pay or quit notice, which states the landlord’s demand for the tenant to vacate the premises within a given time period. Landlords must also apply for rental assistance within 14 days after serving the notice before they evict a tenant for unpaid rent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also extended protections for tenants until Oct. 3, 2021 after its moratorium ended on July 31.

Since June 2020, 2,135 unlawful detainer summons have been filed, according to Gilbert. Of those cases, 1,307, or 61%, were dismissed or non-suited and 599, or 28%, were ruled in favor of the landlord. Additionally, 283 writs of eviction have been issued in that time. Gilbert said that 134 households in the city are still at risk of being evicted at the end of the moratorium.

According to Gilbert, the city has already given legal advice to more than 1,000 residents through its outreach at the courthouse. The city has also provided rental assistance to more than 3,700 households.

In the last two weeks, there have been 120 eviction hearings, a slight decrease from the beginning of September, of which about 22 were dismissed and six ruled in favor of the landlord, according to Gilbert. Thirteen unlawful detainers summons were filed in the past two weeks, with a monthly total of 37, a 90% decrease from August.

Despite an extension on state level protections for tenants, since the eviction moratorium ended, Gilbert said DCHS staff have seen an increase in the number of filings being submitted by landlords. In order to protect tenants, the city proposed allocating $457,000 to increase staffing for specific positions: two service navigators and two housing locators.

According to Gilbert, the navigators go out into the community, work with households to complete rental assistance applications and provide information about available resources. Housing locators, of which there are currently none in the city aside from those in shelters, assist those facing eviction with finding new housing.

“We want to be able to have this resource available in the community for those in the community who are in the eviction process,” Gilbert said. “If they have no choice but to move, we want to help them get quickly housed in a place that meets their needs.”

City staff also proposed additional resources be added to DCHS’ eviction storage efforts in order to help find and secure temporary storage for tenants’ belongings as they go through the eviction process.

“We know that typically when someone is evicted and they don’t have storage and a place to move to, they can lose their belongings discarded on the street,” Gilbert said. “We want to help minimize the trauma and the loss that comes with eviction by providing this service.”

DCHS’ final request was for resources to provide legal support for undocumented residents. According to Gilbert, staff is engaging in preliminary discussions with the Legal Aid Justice Center to provide this service.

Mayor Justin Wilson applauded staff’s efforts and said that although the pandemic has been tough on many residents, it has also opened up new doors to fund programs like DCHS’ eviction prevention efforts.

“One of the nice things about the moment we are in right now is that there is an enormous amount of resources that aren’t normally available,” Wilson said. “We just need to make sure people take advantage of them.”

Councilor Del Pepper made a motion, which Councilor John Chapman seconded, to approve the additional resources for DCHS. Council approved the motion unanimously, 9-0.