Enhanced eviction protections are coming to Martinsville and Henry County by way of an almost $500,000 grant donation.
Starting at the end of January and continuing over the next three years, a grant package of $428,230 will help fund a local grass-roots effort to mitigate evictions in Martinsville and Henry County by providing and expanding legal guidance to residents.
“In our 4th quarter cycle, the board voted to provide the grant,” said Harvest Foundation Program Officer India Brown.
Based in Martinsville, the Harvest Foundation is a nonprofit geared toward community advocacy. Founded in 2002, the organization works to advocate for and invest in communities throughout Martinsville and Henry County. (Disclosure: The Harvest Foundation is one of our donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy)
While their advocacy covers a range of topics, from youth advocacy to fighting poverty, in recent years the foundation has identified evictions as a lingering issue impacting Martinsville residents.
A 2021 report by Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development included Danville in a list of cities with the highest eviction rates in the state. While Danville’s eviction rate is 7.2%, Martinsville has maintained an eviction rate of 7.23%, according to the town’s own estimates from last year. Martinsville’s eviction rate is higher than Henry County’s and the state average, which are both just north of 4%.
The issue, according to Brown, has only become worse with the expiration of the pandemic-related eviction moratorium. Brown describes a situation in which Henry County residents are having to pay back-rent on top of other economic hardships like inflation.
“At the time, we didn’t have an idea on what effect the pandemic would have on the community,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, what we’re seeing now is that although we did have all of these protections during COVID, now that they are being removed, we’re seeing way more people being evicted. People aren’t able to catch up on rent.”
To spearhead this effort, the foundation has turned to the Virginia Legal Aid Society, another nonprofit, which is geared toward legal advocacy.
“Legal Aid was chosen because it’s what they do, it’s their specialty,” Brown said, explaining why the foundation chose to work with Legal Aid.
While Legal Aid does work on a myriad of topics across the state, they did not have an exclusive presence in Henry County. According to Brown, Legal Aid did what they could in Henry County via their office in nearby Danville.
“They were available by appointment — only to local residents,” Brown said.
That changed in 2020 after Legal Aid secured a $300,000 grant from the foundation to open an office in Martinsville, with an emphasis on providing legal assistance on matters relating to housing.
David Weilnau is the managing attorney for Legal Aid’s offices in Danville and Martinsville.
Like Brown, Weilnau said evictions are an overlooked yet contributing factor to homelessness.
“My experience has been that many tenants facing eviction lack an understanding of how serious and fast-moving a process we have in Virginia,” Weilnau said, adding that it’s easy for a tenant to underestimate the speed of the eviction process. “I have seen many tenants show up to their court date with no understanding that they are facing homelessness within two weeks, which makes that eventuality a lot more likely.”
Like Brown, Weilnau blames a number of factors.
“Back in 2020 and 2021, there were some eviction moratoriums in place that prevented landlords from evicting tenants that had been impacted by COVID-19. There were also very robust rent relief programs that provided a lot of rental assistance to tenants that allowed them to get caught up on their rent if they had fallen behind.”
Weilnau said many of those relief programs, like the moratorium, no longer exist.
“The rates of eviction have climbed steadily since then,” Weilnau said.
Like their most recent grant award, the foundation’s 2020 grant had a lifespan of three years.
The foundation’s most recent grant to Legal Aid is both a continuation of the work funded by the 2020 grant and an expansion.
Legal Aid hopes to start conducting what the foundation refers to as courthouse outreach. This entails representatives providing free legal services to those dealing with eviction-related litigation.
“What we began to do was place an attorney and a paralegal in the courthouse,” Weilnau said, as he explained the logistics of courthouse outreach. “For every eviction docket, our attorney …is at the courthouse … with help from the paralegal they can take their application, give them advice at the courthouse before their hearing and if she sees a legal defense to eviction she can stand up and defend them right there at the spot. That kind of on-site intervention will help us reach a lot more tenants.”
This, according to Weilnau, is an important aspect of advocacy work. He explains that while the courts must provide representation in criminal matters, they are not beholden to the same requirements under civil matters like eviction proceedings. Courthouse outreach bridges the gap between people facing evictions and legal representation, according to Weilnau.
“When you’re being evicted from your home or if your house is being foreclosed on, you’re facing a custody dispute, you don’t have a right to an attorney,” Weilnau said. “If you don’t have the money for an attorney, you might not get the same outcome out of our judicial system as you would if you were represented. We exist to fill that gap.”