Community News

THE TRIPLE WHAMMY: PANDEMIC, POVERTY & PUBLIC POLICY

Originally published in the Winter 2022 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 67, printed February 3. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Winter 2022 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

By Delaney Jooris

The COVID-19 pandemic has shed new light on Richmond’s housing crisis even as it has exacerbated it.

Despite both the continuing spread of the virus and the persistence of housing issues, temporary protections meant to alleviate the pandemic’s effects are coming to an end. If delays in terminating these protections do not culminate in structural change to address root causes, Richmonders will continue to suffer the consequences – and those consequences won’t be evenly distributed. The city’s most vulnerable will feel the harshest effects and Black and poor Richmonders will continue to be driven out of the city limits.

As costs of living continue to rise, opportunities to escape the rental cycle through home ownership are becoming few and far between, especially for Black Virginians.

A recent statewide housing study by HousingForward Virginia found that “homeowners in the Commonwealth are older, more affluent, and more white” compared to the average Virginian. Close to three out of four white Virginians are homeowners, compared to less than half of Black Virginians. The study attributes this trend to a variety of factors, including a dwindling supply of low-price “starter homes” and historically racist housing policies.

Richmonders that do achieve home ownership will be burdened with increasing taxes. Despite skyrocketing property values leading homeowners to owe more in taxes, Richmond City Council in November voted down a 6.5 cent rollback. The effects will be felt most by low-income and Black and Brown Richmonders, who are disproportionately cost- burdened homeowners.

Meanwhile, renters in the Greater Richmond area continue to face major challenges. In Chesterfield County, those who need rent relief may be left without it. The county will use an additional $3.8 million in rent relief funds to attempt to cover a 3,900-household backlog from last fall and is no longer accepting new applications. Although rent relief is still widely available through the state, Chesterfield residents cannot apply, as the county opted to receive its own federal funding for rent relief.

Residents of Richmond’s public housing particularly are facing a crisis. Redevelopment plans continue to be approved without the promise of a one-to-one replacement effort, meaning that demolished units can be replaced with more expensive and profitable ones.

In addition to this, the developer responsible for renovating two former public housing communities has displaced families and violated fair housing laws, according to a federal complaint made by the Legal Aid Justice Center. The complaint alleges that The Michaels Organization’s actions had a disparate impact on single Black mothers living with their children.

One resident, Shaneqa Thomas, reports that she was displaced from her apartment for 69 days. She and her two children were moved to a hotel room without a fully functional kitchen and only one bed. The complaint seeks to bar The Michaels Organization, which purchased the former public housing properties from RRHA last year, from participating in other redevelopment projects.

In January, 1,100 residents in Richmond’s public housing were facing possible eviction. After pressure from advocates, the Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners directed staff to delay taking legal action against residents – but households that do not enter into payment plans or receive rent relief may face eviction proceedings as early as mid-February.

It’s likely that many of these households include children. Federal data reports that three out of five RRHA households are headed by women with children. According to RRHA, tenants cited virtual schooling as one reason for their inability to pay rent. Without in-person schooling, mothers must find accessible and affordable childcare. Those who can’t are left with an impossible decision: either leave the kids home alone and go to work, or stay home and possibly lose their jobs.

Housing instability profoundly affects children, and is most evident in academic outcomes. According to the RVA Eviction Lab, “Majority-minority schools and those with high percentages of chronic absences are also located in high eviction rate neighborhoods.”

Although RVA Eviction Lab’s third quarter report for 2021 shows a decrease in eviction filings in Richmond from the second quarter, projected filings match or slightly exceed the second quarter findings. In its report, it is noted that although the number of evictions in the state remains relatively low compared to pre-pandemic levels, “eviction filings and judgements have steadily increased since Spring of 2021.”

The report attributes the slow growth in eviction rates to advocates working to prevent evictions and a state law requiring landlords to apply for rent relief before evicting tenants for non-payment.

A once majority-Black city, Richmond is steadily becoming both whiter and wealthier. If policies enacted to alleviate conditions of the housing crisis during the pandemic are not made permanent, the city could see a mass eviction of its most vulnerable populations – as soon as June, when the state eviction moratorium is set to expire.

This would only strengthen ongoing demographic trends in the city, where Black, Brown and impoverished people are pushed out of the city limits and into the surrounding counties.

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