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Three households threatened with eviction every day in Lynchburg

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An average of three families are threatened with eviction every day in Lynchburg, making it among the worst in the country for a city of its size, according to a new analysis of eviction records in the region.

Nearly nine out of every 100 renting households in the city faced a court-ordered eviction in 2016, giving it the ninth highest eviction rate among Virginian cities larger than 20,000 residents. Lynchburg renters faced eviction more than three-and-a-half times higher than the national average.

The figures were made public in a report released in May by the Virginia Legal Aid Society, which provides free civil legal services to low-income residents. Though the report does not show how many people were ultimately removed from their homes it offers the clearest look yet at the scope of court-ordered evictions in Lynchburg.

The research was inspired by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, which maintains a national database on eviction records. When the Eviction Lab announced its findings last year, it highlighted Virginia as one of the worst states in the country for evictions. Richmond was revealed to have the second highest eviction rate in the nation, with one in five renter households facing eviction in 2016.

But eviction data for Lynchburg was not available until this spring, after the Lynchburg-based Virginia Legal Aid Society crunched the numbers.

Throughout the course of 2016, 1,207 households were ordered to vacate their homes, according to the analysis by the Virginia Legal Aid Society. A year later, another 1,167 faced eviction.

“It's certainly distressing,” said Beau Wright, an at-large Lynchburg City councilman who centered much of his campaign last year on the issue of poverty. “It's a cancer in the body and its a cancer we need to treat.”

The reasons behind Lynchburg’s high eviction rates are not yet clear. Experts suggest a myriad of factors may be at play, including opaque and weak legal protections for tenants and a lack of affordable housing.

Poverty is almost certainly the main driver behind evictions, said John Abell, a professor of economics at Randolph College. More than a fifth of Lynchburg residents live in poverty, which is nearly twice the national rate, according to five-year estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Evictions also exacerbate poverty. Without an address, those eligible for federal and state benefits may miss their renewal notices. And with no roof over their head, job seekers may have no place to prepare for interviews.

“It becomes this vicious circle,” Abell said. “It's a serious thing to be evicted.”

Madeline Cotton found herself in that exact situation last year.

About 15 years earlier, a false tumor on her brain caused fluid to build up, damaging her optic nerves. She’s suffered from partial vision loss and depth perception issues ever since, making it especially hard to find work and to hold down a job. She relied on Social Security Disability Insurance to stay afloat but fell behind as bills climbed past her monthly benefits.

It wasn’t long before a notice appeared on her door demanding rent payment under threat of legal action.

“It's like you’ve been buried alive,” she said. “I wouldn’t want that to happen to my worst enemy.”

After bouncing between homeless shelters, Cotton was eventually rehoused with the help of Miriam’s House, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness by connecting families with affordable housing. The nonprofit has since helped Cotton stay on her feet by supplementing rent payments, helping her to balance her budget and by acting as the mediator between her and her landlord.

“Thankfully, I have more people on my side now,” she said.

Because evictions records do not include information about race, it is impossible to say for certain if one group faces more evictions than another.

But according to Abell, poverty figures strongly suggest deep disparities between black and white tenants. About a third of all black residents in Lynchburg live in poverty, compared with a little more than a sixth of white residents, according to census data released in February. 

The growing disparity between rich and poor and stagnating wages may also play a part in evictions. Between 1990 and 2016, median rents in Lynchburg rose 14% while wages decreased 5%, according to a report released earlier this year by the Lynchburg Regional Housing Collaborative.

“For a lot of folks it just doesn't matter how hard they work, they simply can't afford a decent quality of life,” Wright said. “It says nothing about their work ethic, but rather the rising income inequality across the United States.”

***

Every Monday and Wednesday morning, landlords march into Lynchburg General District Court with a stack of papers under their arms. Both days are set aside for civil cases involving private property disputes and landlords arrive hoping to win a court-ordered eviction.

From the outset, the system is stacked against the tenant, according to Jeremy White, the managing attorney for the Virginia Legal Aid Society’s Lynchburg office.

Many renters do not show, giving landlords an automatic victory. Low-income defendants are not eligible for court-provided attorneys like they are in criminal cases. And judges overwhelmingly decide in favor of landlords.

Between 2008 and 2017, eviction suits were filed against more than 21,000 households in Lynchburg. Judges ruled for landlords in 60% of those cases while about 37% were dismissed or withdrawn. Tenants contested and won just 62 cases over that time period.

The fear of losing a court battle often deters tenants from fighting a landlord’s attempt to get a court ordered eviction, White said.

If a judge rules for a landlord, tenants face an uphill battle in their search for new housing. Many landlords refuse to rent to formerly evicted residents and public housing can deny applications marred by a past eviction.

“The risk of losing may not be worth it,” White said.

Instead, tenants may agree to informal evictions to avoid the court process. Those evictions aren’t captured in court records, making it virtually impossible to know how many occur each year.

Tenants aren't the only ones eager to avoid the courts. Property owners also dread appearing before a judge, according to Antonio Rose, a Lynchburg landlord who owns about two dozen rentals across the city.

Eviction paperwork is time consuming for landlords and the court process could take several weeks to resolve, he said. In the meantime, tenants may still be living in a rental unit without paying rent, cutting off a landlord's source of income.

In some cases, Rose has opted to pay delinquent tenants to vacate his rentals — an informal workaround known among landlords as a "cash for key eviction." He said he once offered a tenant $400 to move out.

"It saves time," he said.

Other landlords aren’t as flexible.

Gina Smith, of Thaxton, owns several rental properties in the city, most of which are in the Rivermont-area. She said a series of delinquent renters have threatened her bottom line in recent years. As a result, she won’t hesitate to file an eviction suit as soon as the rent is late.

“If someone takes your wallet and takes your money, they're going to go to prison,” she said. “But yet, they can come in and they can rob us. We are a business. We are not here to give you a handout. And I'm tired of it.”

Not all formal eviction attempts end with a knock on the door from a sheriff’s deputy. Some tenants may choose to leave their homes after an eviction lawsuit is filed but before a judge has ruled, in which case the suit may be dismissed or withdrawn.

Sheriff Don Sloan said his office served 831 writ of possession orders in 2016 and another 898 in 2017. Possession orders are issued after a judge decides in favor of a landlord or property owner. Not all possession orders evict people from homes (some are filed to recover rented equipment and furniture), but according to Sloan the “vast majority” of possession orders result in evictions.

***

Eviction orders in Lynchburg dwarf those in neighboring localities. Added together, the four counties that surround the city saw fewer than half the total number of court-ordered evictions Lynchburg saw in 2016.

Eviction orders also have trended down in recent years. Between 2013 — when judges awarded 1,412 evictions — and 2017, the number of court-ordered evictions orders dropped about 17%. But Lynchburg's 8.62% eviction rate still exceeds national and state averages. According to Princeton's Eviction Lab, the national eviction rate is 2.34% and the Virginia rate is 5.12%.  

Work is now underway to help alleviate the eviction crisis.

In March, Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation creating a pilot program for renters facing eviction. The court program allows tenants to enter into a payment plan with landlords. It launches in Richmond, Danville, Hampton and Petersburg next year.

New laws broadening tenant rights also came into effect this month. The changes include shortening the time a court-ordered eviction is in effect and allowing tenants more time to come up with rent.

The new legislation also requires that property owners provide the court with a copy of a five-day notice to pay rent or face an eviction suit. Last week, as landlords argued their case some were unaware of the new requirement, offering tenants a surprising reprieve — at least until Monday.

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Richard Chumney covers breaking news and public safety for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547. 

Richard Chumney covers breaking news and public safety for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.

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