By Calvin Pynn, contributor
Winnette Dickerson was still adjusting to life in the pandemic at the beginning of April, when she lost her job, fell behind on rent and found herself facing eviction – an experience that felt like being “tied upside down.”
Initially, Dickerson, a Harrisonburg resident who was working as substance abuse counselor, was able to stay in her apartment thanks to a temporary statewide moratorium on evictions that took effect in early June. Still, she was concerned about the possibility of homelessness – especially given her 15 years of volunteering at Our Community Place, a nonprofit serving people in that same situation.
“The thought of possibly joining the people I had been serving created so much anxiety and stress,” Dickerson said. “All I could do is weep because I’m in this predicament.”
After the moratorium expired on June 28, a total of 229 eviction proceedings resumed in Harrisonburg/Rockingham General District Court.
According to Blue Ridge Legal Services Executive Director John Whitfield, that number isn’t particularly alarming yet, as many of those cases were held over from before the pandemic. During “good economic times,” Whitfield said, Harrisonburg generally sees an average of 88 evictions per month that added up to around 1,100 per year.
“I think really, it’s more the lull before the storm,” Whitfield said.
But that storm could be a bad one, Whitfield said, given that the pandemic has left thousands of Virginians unable to pay rent. In addition, a separate federal moratorium on evictions in subsidized housing ended on July 25.
“We really won’t see the tsunami of eviction probably until late August or early September,” Whitfield said. “Then I think we will see a bunch.”
According to the docket available online, 38 eviction hearings are scheduled in Harrisonburg/Rockingham General District Court this week. As of press time, an additional 81 are scheduled for the week of August 3, with 29 scheduled for the week of August 10.
Whitfield anticipates those numbers could soon add up to a record high.
“I think for every household facing eviction, it’s a crisis,” he said. “But it could be in numbers that we haven’t seen before, since the  recession, easily.”
According to data from the Princeton Eviction Lab, the eviction rate in Rockingham County was 2.68% per 100 rented homes in 2008. Over the past two decades, that rate, according to the same data set, has fluctuated between 1.5 and 4 percent; data for Harrisonburg itself are not available.
Economic ripple effects and public health concerns
Since the early days of the pandemic, there have been calls for a rent freeze in Harrisonburg as businesses have shuttered and tenants have lost income. Paul Riner, owner of Riner Rentals, a property management firm in Harrisonburg, said that such action would cause a ripple effect particularly affecting smaller landlords.
“I certainly don’t want to minimize the impact on the tenant, and sometimes it may come across like that, but I do think it’s also important to understand the impact on the landlord,” Riner said. “And then also the impact that can have on the greater financial system as well, because if people start defaulting on rent, then owners start defaulting on mortgages, it could get really, really bad.”
At the same time, others in the community emphasize the public health ramifications of people losing their homes during the pandemic.
“When people lose housing, they tend to double up with extended family or friends which increases exposure,” said Rev. Jennifer Davis Sensenig, executive director of Faith in Action.
Since before the pandemic began, Davis Sensenig said, Faith in Action has advocated on behalf of tenants and called for more affordable housing in Harrisonburg. Along with other agencies in the city, the group has monitored the pandemic’s effect on the housing, and, since the moratorium was lifted, worked to connect people facing eviction with legal aid and rent assistance.
State rent assistance funding in demand locally
On the same day eviction notices resumed, Governor Ralph Northam allocated $50 million to be distributed across the state for housing assistance under the Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief System.
Mercy House, a nonprofit combating poverty and homelessness in Harrisonburg, received $225,000 from the program. In early July, it began assisting residents who had fallen behind on rent.
Applicants for the funding must document proof of income loss due to COVID-19. If approved, the funds received can help them avoid eviction when served their first five-day notice of past-due rent.
According to Executive Director Shannon Porter, Mercy House had helped 10 households as of Friday, July 17, providing an average of $1,400 per household. He expects that number to grow in the coming months.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” he said.
Porter expects that money to run out before all local needs are met, and said that Mercy House is working on acquiring other sources of funding.
“I think it’s very likely we’ll exhaust those funds,” he said. We’re just getting started.”
While the agency has so far received about 15 to 25 calls per day requesting assistance, Porter expects that to grow to 400 by the end of the month.
“For most of these folks, it’s the first time they’ve been behind, and it’s traumatic,” Porter said. “We’ve had to talk quite a few people down.”
A proposed flyer didn’t fly
As part of its efforts to assist people facing eviction, Faith in Action drafted a flyer outlining tenants’ rights and listing Blue Ridge Legal Services and Mercy House as resources for people served with eviction notices.
According to Art Stoltzfus, Faith in Action’s community organizing coordinator, the document was based on a similar one distributed by officers serving eviction notices in other Virginia localities. Hopeful of a similar partnership in the area, he and Whitfield asked Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson to consider sending the flyer with deputies serving eviction notices.
Hutcheson turned the offer down, however, stating that his office plays a neutral role in the process.
“I do not think it is appropriate for us to hand that document out,” wrote Hutcheson in an email responding to Stoltzfus and Whitfield’s request, which he shared with The Citizen. “We serve the legal paper, that is our role. We do not advocate for the landlord or the tenant in any way …. I think both Blue Ridge Legal and Mercy House are great organizations. But it is up to them to advocate for themselves and inform the public of who they are / what they do, not us.”
Whitfield said he will seek other ways to distribute the flyer.
“It’s unfortunate because that was the most effective way to get that information to the people who needed it the most,” Whitfield said. “Not getting that information to those people, is really going to be counterproductive.”
Faith in Action is also calling on state officials to extend additional help to tenants facing eviction across Virginia.
“Our governor has emergency powers that he could implement to pause these evictions, and that’s really what we need until the General Assembly in August has their special session, and then they could take up some additional renter protections,” said Davis Sensenig.
In the meantime, Winnette Dickerson wants people to remember that those facing eviction during the pandemic are under both systemic and circumstantial pressures.
“Before we were all in that category of living paycheck to paycheck, robbing Peter to pay Paul,” she said. “But during this pandemic, Peter and Paul both are broke.”
Journalism is changing, and that’s why The Citizen is here. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. Thanks for your support.