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Rent relief funds flow in the region, but some tenants lack protection

Rent relief funds flow in the region, but some tenants lack protection

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A state program to relieve residents of overdue rent has churned out $9 million and counting to the greater Roanoke region, preventing people from eviction, and perhaps from resulting homelessness.

Out of $335 million so far dispersed by Virginia Rent Relief, $9.3 million has come to more than 2,400 homes in the Roanoke and New River valleys as of July 28, according to the most recent data available from the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Virginia’s Rent Relief Program was initiated by the General Assembly in February, using $524 million of federal COVID-19 response money. Funds are available to people whose ability to pay or be paid rent was anyhow impeded by the coronavirus and its economic impacts, anytime since April 1, 2020.

“Virginia has done an excellent job, as best you can in these kind of extreme circumstances, to get the money out,” said Grimes Creasy, a Roanoke-based attorney. “There may be some attorneys or landlords who would challenge me on that, but I think the process is working.”

Landlords are for the most part foregoing evictions once they are paid outstanding rent, said Creasy, who represents property managers in matters of fair housing, landlord and tenant litigation across Central and Southwest Virginia.

“The applications are being processed in a timely manner,” Creasy said. “Money is being received. Rent is being paid. Many times if the application is approved and money is received, the case is dismissed.”

Of the $9.3 million in rent relief gone to the greater region surrounding Roanoke, 1,050 recipients in the city were paid $4.1 million as of July 28, state DHCD data shows.

“Not to pat us on the back, but I think Virginia’s been a textbook example,” Creasy said. “I hear these nightmares in other jurisdictions and other states where the money has not been getting out.”

Rent relief has alleviated or removed the threat of eviction for many Virginians unable to pay because of the coronavirus, Creasy said.

It is even mandatory for landlords to apply for rent relief in evictions cases now through June of 2022, or until the remaining $190 million runs dry, said a representative of Roanoke Legal Aid Society.

For that reason, the again-extended Centers for Disease Control eviction moratorium that was overturned Thursday by the U.S. Supreme Court is not of great concern to most Virginians facing eviction, experts agreed. Rent relief most likely has tenants covered.

Gaps in the safety net?

Some people, through sometimes little fault of their own, face eviction via the expiration of their rental agreements.

Sometimes, whether a landlord is selling their property or maybe just because they are annoyed with a tenant, leases come to an end, with no option for renewal, said Mona Raza, an attorney for Roanoke Legal Aid specializing in landlord-tenant law.

“Sometimes there’s nothing that can be done for the tenant, and they’ve got to move out,” Raza said. “I have seen sick and elderly people get evicted.”

Raza said the number of people coming to Legal Aid about nonrenewable leases has increased during the past year or so. The nonprofit will try to negotiate with landlords, but sometimes there is no compromise.

“Sometimes it’s people who have lived in a property for 20 years,” Raza said. “Even if they’re an elderly or sick person, there’s not really a safety net for them.”

Sometimes landlords give a reason why they won’t renew, but they don’t have to, because it’s their property. This makes it hard to pinpoint any consistent cause for why nonrenewal cases might have recently increased.

“It doesn’t help that people are getting really good prices for their properties,” Raza said.

Potential for abuse?

Rent relief works for people who really need it, said April Fridley, office manager for Roanoke Rental Homes, which oversees management of 250 properties—even if others might be gaming the system.

“If we have 10 tenants that could not pay or would not pay, I would say probably eight of those are abusing it,” Fridley said.

She said nonpayment of rent was indeed a problem for some tenants at the height of the coronavirus economic panic. It’s still bad now, for some renters.

“We are trying to do what is right for our owners, and it doesn’t help us to evict people. It’s a loss if we have to evict people,” Fridley said. “With all the funds that are coming through the government, we try our best to file for them.”

Some tenants, however, kept their jobs through all the madness of the coronavirus but stopped paying rent, later applying for and receiving relief funds, she said.

“There’s tons of help to keep people who are renting from losing their homes, which is great,” Fridley said. “But I’m just really disheartened by this whole thing.”

She said many of the relief checks Roanoke Rental Homes receives now are on behalf of people who are still working while not paying rent.

“It’s just a win-win,” Fridley said. “Even if they are abusing it.”

Funds to be had

Hometown Holdings manages more than 1,000 rental units in the Roanoke Valley, and saw about 6% of its tenants stop paying rent when the coronavirus first broke out, said spokesperson Matt Jones.

“When COVID first started, a lot of people weren’t paying their rent, but that has drastically changed,” Jones said. “The amount of cases we’re seeing and applying for now definitely slowed way down. It’s very minimal compared to what it was back in late summer and early fall of last year.”

Across its properties managed as of early August, Hometown Holdings recouped about $250,000 for its landlords through 55 rent relief applications, the company said in an email.

Most people are back to paying rent, Jones said, but for issues of nonpayment, the rent relief program works wonders for landlords and tenants alike.

“There’s a lot of funds left there to be had,” Jones said. “If you have any delinquencies, I would strongly recommend applying for it… because it does work.”

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