Why is Richmond’s eviction rate so high? And can anything be done about it? VCU affordable housing expert weighs in.

Kathryn Howell, Ph.D.
Kathryn Howell, Ph.D.

A coalition met for the first time this week in Richmond to try to untangle why Virginia — and Richmond, in particular — has some of the highest rates of eviction in the country, and to search for ways to reduce them.

The coalition, the Campaign to Reduce Evictions, was formed after an article in The New York Times in April revealed that Richmond has the nation’s second-highest eviction filing rate, and that five Virginia cities — Richmond, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Chesapeake — are within the country’s top 10.

Kathryn Howell, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Urban and Regional Studies and Planning program of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, is an expert on affordable housing, community development and gentrification. Howell spoke with VCU News about why the eviction rates are so high, and whether anything can be done to drive them down.

 

Why do you think the eviction rates are so high in Virginia, and in Richmond in particular? Are there common characteristics of communities that have especially high eviction rates?

Part of the process of the Campaign to Reduce Evictions is to collect and analyze data to better understand why Richmond stands out. We know evictions are impacted by affordable housing supply, laws that favor landlords and housing quality. However, why Richmond stands out is less clear.

Is it because we have such a small supply of deeply affordable housing — that is, housing that is affordable to residents earning less than $25,000 for a family of four ($12/hour)? Affordable means that they spend less than 30 percent of their incomes on housing costs. The National Low Income Housing Coalition found that in Richmond we have 31 affordable and available units for every 100 residents at or below that income level. This means that many of the lowest-income residents are paying 50 percent, or as much as 70 percent, of their incomes for housing. Thus, if you have one bad day — a car repair, a medical bill, a parking ticket or even assistance to a family member — [it] can set off a chain of events leading to eviction.

But just as importantly, we have laws that leave residents with little opportunity. The cascading and compounding fees can mean that a late month can balloon into an unpayable sum. More importantly, tenants don’t have an opportunity to challenge unfair evictions — they typically do not have representation, time or knowledge about the process to push back against an unlawful eviction — which can be a result of nuisance complaints, such as a domestic violence complaint, as well as nonpayment. As a result, you find families — particularly victims of domestic violence — who can be victimized again by eviction.

The other element may be that many of the buildings affordable to our poorest neighbors are not maintained by landlords. These residents face threats and retaliatory evictions for complaining about conditions. Worse yet, the city faces a catch-22 where, if they close the buildings, they have to evict residents who have the fewest options.

But it’s important to note that we really don’t know. Our laws are not worse than other states and cities. Our affordable housing crisis is dire, but there are many cities facing more challenges. So this is why the Campaign to Reduce Evictions will spend the next year or more collecting and analyzing data. We cannot solve this without data — this means qualitative and quantitative data. While we can get a lot about the what from eviction data sets, we can get more about the how and why from qualitative interviews with impacted members of our community.

Eviction obviously can have an awful impact on the families losing their homes. But beyond that, what do you see as the wider implications of such high rates of eviction on communities like Richmond? 

We know from previous research that the impacts of gentrification are wide-reaching and long-lasting. The first is really the immediate impact on children and parents. Instability in housing has been shown to impact school outcomes, jobs and mental health for families. Forced moves — which can send families into less stable housing such as motels and lower-quality housing units — can mean missed work or school. … There are also impacts on mental and physical health from the stress and broken social networks.

But there are also community-level issues that come from eviction — schools where students turn over rapidly are challenged to teach effectively when they are constantly trying to figure out where new students are educationally. Meanwhile, communities themselves where residents are moving in and out are not benefitting from the strong community engagement.

These social costs — plus the fiscal costs of evictions — are something else we hope to document in Richmond.

Are there strategies or policies that you would recommend to lower the eviction rates? Have other communities effectively dealt with this problem?

I’m hesitant to recommend strategies before we have done the research. But we know that affordable housing supply, legal representation and information are critical for shifting our approach to a more resident-focused policy. These are common elements of strong policies nationwide.