Richmond will launch the first eviction diversion program in Virginia this year, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced in his State of the City address Thursday night.
The announcement comes about 10 months after a Princeton University analysis published in The New York Times found that Richmond renters faced eviction at the second-highest rate in the country. The findings, which also showed high eviction rates in four other Virginia cities, sparked scrutiny of state laws last year and jump-started discussions locally of what can be done to stem the tide.
“Under this program, tenants would get the benefit of a clean slate,” Stoney said.
The diversion program will help tenants avoid receiving an eviction on their rental history, while ensuring landlords get the back rent they are owed by way of a payment plan, Stoney said. It will rely on pro bono lawyers to serve as mediators between tenants and landlords. Tenants would have to participate in a financial literacy course and would be eligible for assistance only once.
The program is modeled after efforts in Lansing, Mich., and Durham, N.C., said Heather Mullins Crislip, president and CEO of Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia.
The nonprofit is partnering with the Stoney administration, Central Virginia Legal Aid Society and city court system on the effort. Crislip said the city will provide funding to supplement private donations HOME has been soliciting to launch the program.
“There’s been such an outpouring of interest that I’m feeling pretty confident that we’ll be able to make a big dent,” Crislip said. The program aims to help 500 families facing eviction in its first year, she added.
City Council President Cynthia Newbille and other council members in attendance Thursday applauded the approach Stoney said his administration would take to reduce the number of families who face eviction — about 40,000 people in Richmond annually, according to a HOME fact sheet.
“If it’s just legal or just funding to pay off the rent, that doesn’t do it for the long term,” Newbille said. “You’ve got to deal with the immediate, but you also want to set people on a course to success.”
Stoney announced the initiative in a speech he delivered before more than 250 people gathered at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture on the Boulevard. He spent much of his 30-minute address recapping his administration’s work during his first two years in office.
Among the accomplishments he touted: passing a meals tax increase that has funded the construction of three schools that city leaders broke ground on at the end of last year; expanding out-of-school programming for Richmond Public Schools students; and laying the groundwork to add context to Richmond’s Confederate monuments.
Stoney touted strides his administration has made toward improving the basic services it provides residents during his tenure.
Stoney said that in his first two years in office, the city’s Department of Public Works has repaired 2,900 alleys, fixed 3,200 sidewalks and filled 50,000 potholes. In the budget he will present the council in March, Stoney pledged to include a 20-year plan laying out how the city can pay to improve its infrastructure in the long term.
He also cited the formation of a new Department of Citizen Service and Response, which oversees the city’s 311 Call Center and RVA311 website. The new department fielded 98,000 calls from residents in its first six months and handled 60 percent of them on the spot.
The mayor promised to convene a group of city and civic leaders to chart a vision for Shockoe Bottom that would include commemoration of the area’s slave-trading history. The group, which Stoney called the Shockoe Alliance, will build on the work his administration began last year with the National League of Cities and the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use.
“I firmly believe that telling the true story of the tragic history that occurred in Shockoe can be the most inclusive history told anywhere in America, and telling an inclusive story of our history will attract visitors from all over the globe,” Stoney said.
Missing from the mayor’s remarks Thursday was any update on the $1.4 billion Coliseum redevelopment project he endorsed to much fanfare in November. Stoney has yet to publicly release the plans, nearly a year after his administration first received them, citing ongoing negotiations with a private group led by Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell II that submitted them for review.
Stoney mentioned the project briefly, 25 minutes into his 30-minute remarks, before pivoting to his efforts to promote the construction of more affordable housing in the city.
The absence of new information on the massive economic development project stood out to some council members in attendance Thursday. At the end of last year, the council put in place an advisory commission to review the deal and its potential impact once Stoney formally introduces it.
Stoney opened his speech Thursday by asking for a moment of silence for two Richmonders who have died in the past week: former Mayor Walter T. Kenney Sr. and community strategist Lillie A. Estes.
“Both Lillie and Mayor Kenney represent the best of Richmond,” Stoney said. “They were 150 percent dedicated and devoted to moving Richmond forward.”