Lynchburg’s eviction rate is high. Very high. Three families a day in our city are evicted.

Eviction is a massive disruption to the tenant and to the landlord. It adds costs, losses and negatively affects family stability. This is true regardless of fault of landlord or tenant.

The eviction numbers are a fact, and that fact sends aftershocks into our community and does not end with the individual tenant and landlord relationship.

An evicted tenant must find new housing (maybe spending time in a homeless shelter), switch schools, pay a new utility deposit, pay a security deposit and first month’s rent, pay for a moving truck, pay for help loading, miss work and make a significant investment of time and energy.

For low to middle income tenants, this can present insurmountable financial and emotional obstacles. It affects the adults in the home, the kids and the community. I recently read an article that in the fourth grade Lebron James missed 83 days of school because of instability and moving constantly (it didn’t say if evictions were involved). Children often take the worst of the collateral damage of these situations.

A 2015 study called “Eviction’s Fallout: Housing, Hardship and Health” surveyed the effects of eviction on mothers and their children. Mothers who were evicted in the previous 12 months were more likely to suffer from depression and experience higher levels of “material hardship:” difficulty paying for food, utilities, skipping needed medical care, borrowing money to pay bills or having to take on a second job.

An eviction is not the tenant’s whole story, it is an event that takes place amid parenting demands, financial trade-offs, work changes, health needs and heartaches. Another 2015 study, “Housing and Employment Insecurity among the Working Poor,” suggests that workers who are evicted or experienced some other form of involuntary move are laid off 11 percent to 15 percent more frequently than similar workers who did not. We need to see the person and the whole story to craft meaningful solutions to benefit tenants, landlords and our community.

Lynchburg’s eviction rate (8.62 percent) is nearly four times the national rate of 2.34 percent and one of the highest in the state.

Even this high rate underreports evictions in Lynchburg, because it counts only the ones that make it to court. Additional evictions happen regularly without any records or court action. A landlord tells the tenant to leave, and the tenant leaves.

If most mid-sized cities in the country have lower eviction rates and most cities in Virginia have lower eviction rates, it also means that Lynchburg could be among them and it does not have to stay at the top of the eviction rate pile. Of course not all evictions are avoidable, but neither are all evictions inevitable. Reducing evictions and improving housing stability are goals that our community can agree upon.

While the eviction data is recent, the housing problem is not new. Centra’s 2018 Community Health Needs Assessment made clear that affordable housing is a significant obstacle in our community. Lynchburg City Schools has an employee dedicated to assisting students with lack of housing. City Council was recently presented with a report on affordable housing challenges and solutions. The issue is not going away on its own. The current housing and eviction crisis is happening in the context of low unemployment rates, the May 2019 unemployment rate in the Lynchburg area was only 3.4 percent according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The problems and factors are many: affordability, sub-standard rental housing conditions, unlawful evictions, laws that limit tenant’s rights, the complexity of the legal system and the need to educate tenants and landlords. Are we content to shrug our shoulders and close our eyes to the reality in our community? I believe that we have the resolve in our community to do the work of reaching greater housing stability. But it can only happen if we invest together.

Virginia Legal Aid Society has initiated a dialogue among several community groups that support greater housing stability in Central Virginia. We hope to convene this fall a meeting of interested public, nonprofit and private agencies, associations and leaders to continue the process.

White is the Managing Attorney of Virginia Legal Aid Society’s Lynchburg office, which covers much of Central Virginia. He wrote this column for The News & Advance.

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