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As many Virginians struggle to make rent amid the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, state lawmakers will consider more legislation during their latest session to help people keep their homes.

The General Assembly has already approved several bills to prevent evictions. One major measure, approved during a special session in late 2020, forces landlords to offer tenants payment plans if they’re behind on rent.

Property managers also cannot evict tenants who are in the process of receiving financial assistance through the Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program.

With the General Assembly reconvening Wednesday, lawmakers will propose new legislation that expands tenant protections, including cracking down on landlords who illegally evict people.

Here are the measures lawmakers will consider:

Making Payment Plan Requirement Permanent

During their special session last year, lawmakers approved a temporary measure that gives tenants new opportunities to avoid an eviction.

A landlord who notifies a tenant that they’re late on rent must wait 14 days to pursue remedies like terminating the lease and pursuing an eviction. The tenant has those two weeks to pay off the missed rent.

The law also forces landlords who own more than four rental units to offer payment plans to tenants who owe back rent. If a tenant agrees to the plan, they have six months or the rest of the lease – whichever is less — to pay back missed rent in equal installments. A landlord can only pursue an eviction if the tenant breaks the agreement or rejects the payment plan.

The measure is supposed to last until June 30, 2021.

During the new general session, Del. Marcia Price will introduce a bill that ends the sunset clause and makes the payment plan requirement and 14-day notice period permanent.

Housing advocates say Price’s bill will help limit evictions in several Virginia cities with some of the highest eviction rates in the country.

“This could really make a difference,” says Elaine Poon, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center. “If the goal is to get paid, it seems like common sense for people to work together to just reach the same goal, which is to do a payment plan.”

Patrick McCloud, CEO of the Virginia Apartment Management Association, says the bill could have unintended consequences. He notes that some tenants have been breaking their payment plans and struggling to stay current on rent.

“If you enter into a payment plan and then default, now you have even more debt,” he says. “The understanding needs to be when we put in an extended payment plan, there’s a strong possibility that we’re basically enhancing the amount of debt people will be carrying on their credit.”

Strengthening Protections Against Unlawful Evictions

Housing advocates say landlords have been illegally evicting people behind on rent.

A lawful eviction occurs when a landlord sues a tenant in court and wins approval. A local sheriff must then remove the tenant and their belongings from the property.

Illegal or “self-help” evictions happen when landlords ignore the court process and try to force out tenants by changing their locks or turning off utilities among other methods.

Current law allows tenants to recoup damages from an illegal eviction — like the cost of finding another place to live. Still, advocates say the punishment for an self-help eviction must be more severe to help deter them in the future.

“Other states have much more stringent procedures when it comes to an illegal eviction,” Poon says. 

Sen. Adam Ebbin and Del. Sally Hudson will introduce bills in their respective chambers to let judges force landlords to pay an illegally-evicted tenant the greater of $5,000 or four months rent. The measures will also force courts to hold hearings sooner after tenants file petitions claiming they’ve been unlawfully evicted.

McCloud says he can’t comment on the legislation because he hasn’t seen it yet, but he’s opposed to illegal evictions.

Expanding Right of Redemption

Known as right of redemption, a tenant who is about to be evicted by a sheriff can cancel the eviction if they pay their landlord all owed money two days before the scheduled eviction date.

Virginia only allows a tenant to use their right of redemption once every 12 months. HB 2014 by Del. Price will eliminate that limit.

James Speer, executive director of the Virginia Poverty Law Center, says the law will keep tenants in their homes. It will also help landlords avoid the costly process of having to find new tenants after the eviction.

“Anytime somebody pays what they owed and the landlord’s made whole, why should we go ahead with the eviction,” Speer says. 

McCloud says the bill could be unnecessary because landlords usually cancel evictions anyway if their tenants pay back all owed money. He adds language in the bill needs to be clarified so that if tenants fall behind on their rent again in the near future, landlords don’t have to go back to court for an eviction.

45-Day Eviction Protection For Tenants Waiting For Rent Relief

Virginia is providing tenants with financial assistance through its Rent and Mortgage Relief Program. If a tenant applies for the program, they are shielded from eviction as long as they’re application has been pending approval for less than 45 days. Once that period is up, a landlord can pursue an eviction even if the tenant is still waiting for approval.

“It’s really unfair to be pursuing rent relief on one end and on the 46th day to come in and try to receive this rent from a court and go through this very extreme collection process and causing homelessness,” Poon says.

Advocates say Sen. Ghazala Hashmi will propose a budget amendment that protects tenants from eviction indefinitely as long as they’re still waiting to hear about their application.

McCloud is concerned the amendment could force landlords to wait longer to receive missed rent.

“I don’t think there’s any reason why the state can’t get it done in 45 days,” McCloud says. “It’s not the job of the landlord to bear the cost for the state’s inability to get the job done.”