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Making Room: How Arlington Can Diffuse the Eviction Time Bomb

Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Like many states throughout the country, Virginia suspended evictions during the public health emergency caused by Covid-19. This was an essential step for protecting vulnerable community members during this pandemic. Evictions are damaging not only because they remove a person from their home, but they also make it difficult for the person to get a lease in the future. To have a resilient community that can survive this pandemic, we need to keep everyone housed.

Advocates like me thought that Arlington evictions would be put on hold until July 21. As late as the July 7 Housing Commission meeting, the people who are generally the most plugged-in thought the moratorium would be extended. Instead, the Arlington General District Court started hearing unlawful detainer (eviction) cases at the beginning of July and there are 112 cases scheduled for Thursday, July 30.

Eviction moratoriums are a stop-gap measure meant to buy time for long-term solutions. At some point, the moratorium will end and the rent will be due in a lump sum, which could mean thousands of dollars owed. On top of this, the additional $600 in weekly unemployment benefits is set to expire on July 31. Preventing a “tsunami” of evictions is imperative. It’s times like this that I wish the United States had guaranteed minimum income. But let’s settle for providing financial assistance to reduce rent owed and give tenants a better standing to negotiate with landlords.

Arlington’s Tenant-Landlord Commission started work last year on plans to reduce evictions, two of which went into effect earlier this year. First, the Clerk of Court is now attaching a one-page summary of eviction prevention resources to the summons sent to Arlington residents who are facing eviction. If tenants know their rights and their resources to stop the eviction process, hopefully we can keep more people in their homes. Second, the Arlington General District Court will hold unlawful detainer (eviction) hearings Thursdays each week. This will allow service providers, such as Arlington’s Department of Human Services (DHS) and legal aid, to deploy staff when they will have the most impact. Caseworkers and attorneys can intervene before docket calls to provide resources and mediation that can divert a tenant from an eviction.

These two relatively simple, low-cost strategies can give tenants the information and resources they need to prevent an eviction. Arlington should do more to provide legal representation for tenants during the eviction process. Funding another attorney would be a relatively small cost for an incredibly significant benefit.

What at-risk families need most right now is money to pay their rent. In the past few months, Arlington County has provided $1.9 million to Arlington Thrive to expand its capacity to provide emergency financial assistance for families facing immediate need. Virginia has also rolled out a program to provide grants to families to cover their rent. DHS is working to distribute these funds, regardless of a resident’s immigration status and with no impact on the Public Charge rule.

Governor Northam called a special session of the General Assembly to address the Covid-19 crisis. Now is the time to act before families are forced into crowded, unsafe conditions; pushed further from their jobs and communities; or end up on the streets.

Northam has a responsibility renew the eviction moratorium, as a prelude to a more comprehensive plan for reducing evictions during the pandemic and beyond. VOICE has issued a 4-part test that communities should to pass before resuming evictions. Just as we shouldn’t reopen bars before we have the virus under control, we shouldn’t evict people until they know their rights and our social service agencies are equipped to provide renters the help they are entitled to.

Jane Fiegen Green, an Arlington resident since 2015, proudly rents an apartment in Pentagon City with her family. By day, she is the Membership Director for Food and Water Watch and by night she tries to navigate the Arlington Way. Opinions here are her own.

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