‘Harmful cocktail’ leads to high eviction rate

Published 10:25 pm Thursday, April 26, 2018

New widely shared data recently placed Suffolk fourth on a list of mid-size cities in Virginia with the highest eviction rates, but those who work frequently with evictions say the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Suffolk’s eviction rate is 8.63 percent, according to evictionlab.com. This is 6.29-percent higher than the national rate and 3.51-percent higher than Virginia’s eviction rate.

The data from Eviction Lab shows that Suffolk had 815 formal evictions in 2016, and there were 2,213 eviction filings. This number only takes into account evictions that were filed formally with a court system and does not count forced evictions or settlements.

Newsletter

Email newsletter signup

“A lot of the numbers were surprising in one sense, but not that surprising in another,” said Virginia Legal Aid Society attorney Amy Allman. “It’s pretty shocking when one of the things we see with the numbers is they don’t tell the whole story. The only thing the numbers capture are what happens in court with actual evictions.”

According to Allman, most evictions take place outside of a courtroom.

Suffolk’s high eviction rates can be linked to multiple things, according to Allman.

“I think it’s a combination of a lot of different things,” said Allman. “There is a shortage of affordable housing in Suffolk, and we have a higher poverty rate. Our clients also have low incomes, and the laws are just not that favorable for tenants in Virginia. Combine that with the fact that the legal system is not terribly user-friendly, it can create a harmful cocktail of sorts.”

The Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act is supposed to protect the rights of the tenants, but these laws don’t do enough to protect them, according to Allman.

“In Virginia, we fall short of protection,” Allman said.

Once the eviction gets filed with the court system, potential evictees feel like they are getting the short end of the stick.

Most tenants fighting their eviction are underrepresented and aren’t educated about their rights, Allman said. This can be the reason why some decide to settle outside of court, because if there is an eviction on their record, they have trouble getting housing again.

“This cycle leads them down a path of poverty, and it can lead to homelessness,” Allman said.

Fear of an eviction is what kept Kelley Tamacas from going to court over the condition of the house she was renting.

Tamacas started renting a home in Suffolk in March 2015, and by September 2015 she was somewhere new.

“When I first moved in, I had to wait because all the pipes were busted and they had to come out and fix them,” Tamacas said. “Living there you found all sorts of things — mushrooms growing in the bathroom, the bathtub sinking and a tree growing into the house.”

Despite the terrible conditions, Tamacas paid her rent every month.

“I needed a roof over my head no matter what,” Tamacas said.

Tamacas was in constant contact with the property manager every week, but they never fixed the problems, only put Band-Aids on the problems, she said. Finally, Tamacas had an inspector come to the house and even called the city, but this only angered the property manager.

Tamacas worked with Allman and the VLAS, and they were ready to fight in court. But there was still a chance of Tamacas leaving the courtroom with an eviction, and that led her to settle the matter outside of court.

Allman thinks that some of the best outcomes come from outside the courtroom.

“Some of the best results come from working with landlords and getting to a good solution for everyone,” Allman said. “We aren’t looking for the blame game but rather to get everyone involved and identify the causes.”

Suffolk renters spend 31.5 percent of their income towards their rent, but Allman’s clients are putting much more than that towards their rent. The median gross rent that Suffolk renters pay is $1,031.

“Suffolk has a housing crisis for low-income people,” Allman said. “They are working one, two and three jobs, and an incredible percentage of their income goes to housing.”

A single emergency or unforeseen circumstance can lead to missing a rent payment and then eviction.

Some landlords aren’t always so quick to take tenants to court.

“We work with people all the time when they are having a difficult time paying the rent,” said Hugh Cross, broker at Cross Management Corp. “I don’t like evicting people, and I don’t like going to court.”