Recently, Virginia drew national attention for reportedly high eviction rates, especially in central Virginia and Hampton Roads. This has inspired many efforts to address the issue. These include a Campaign to Reduce Evictions, an evictions workgroup at the Virginia Housing Commission, and a possible Eviction Diversion Program in Richmond and elsewhere. These initiatives may result in changes that decrease the number of evictions and benefit both tenants and landlords.
One partial solution requires no change at all: Use the tenant’s money to cure the tenant’s rent shortfall. The Sunday April 8, 2018, New York Times article about evictions reported that the median amount owed in a non-payment of rent eviction in Richmond was $686. By contrast, a Virginia landlord may hold a security deposit of up to two months’ rent. With an average monthly rent in Richmond of $1,269, a typical landlord may hold around $2,000 of the tenant’s money.
And the security deposit is the tenant’s money. It is not the landlord’s money. The landlord is a fiduciary, or a trustee, holding the tenant’s money and using it only for a permissible purpose.
In most cases, the tenant’s security deposit is not an issue until the tenant has moved and been gone for 45 days. During that time, the landlord either must refund the security deposit or provide a written accounting for how the funds were used, or some combination of the two.
A Virginia landlord also may use the security deposit during the tenancy for any permissible purpose. This includes payment of rent owed. The law, part of Code of Virginia §55-248.15:1, is clear: “The landlord shall notify the tenant in writing of any deductions provided by this subsection to be made from the tenant’s security deposit during the course of the tenancy. Such notification shall be made within 30 days of the date of the determination of the deduction and shall itemize the reasons.”
In 38 years of legal aid practice in Virginia, I never have seen or heard of a landlord deducting a rent shortfall from the security deposit, and seeking a repayment plan to replenish the funds, rather than undergo the time and expense of filing a non-payment of rent eviction. Unquestionably, tenants who intentionally or habitually fail to pay their rent deserve an eviction lawsuit, a judgment of possession, and eviction by the sheriff. But true hardship cases ought to be treated more humanely. Use the tenant’s money to cure the tenant’s rent shortfall.
A tenant’s non-payment of rent should not be subject to a “one size fits all” solution of an eviction lawsuit. Landlords have in their own hands a partial solution to lower eviction rates. Treat tenants like customers, not like a commodity to be disposed of whenever a problem arises.
Martin Wegbreit is director of litigation for the Virginia Legal Aid Society.