Seven new laws that will help renters sleep easier

Tuesday, April 16th, 2019

Renting your home from someone else isn’t always easy, especially when you’re living paycheck to paycheck. When an emergency car repair eats half your monthly rent money, you have to beg and borrow the other half in time to avoid eviction. If your landlord doesn’t fix the hot water heater or replace the broken steps even after the six letters you sent him, you have to live with it or try to navigate the confusing court system on your own. Your country landlord doesn’t give you a written lease, and you’re left hoping his handshake was enough to seal the rental deal.

As of July 1 of this year, renters can worry less about these issues thanks to seven new laws passed by the Virginia General Assembly:

1. Written Leases Required

All residential landlords must offer renters written leases. If they don’t, the tenancy will automatically last for twelve months, require that rent be paid on the first of each month, provide a five-day grace period for rent, allow landlords to charge reasonable late fees, and limit security deposits to no more than two months’ rent.

2. One Case at a Time and Required Evidence

Landlords suing tenants for nonpayment of rent can only file one case at a time. This allows tenants to “pay and stay”—pay all they owe and remain in their home—and keeps court costs relatively low. The law requires a judge to enter a valid termination notice into evidence before entering an eviction order. Our hope is that this will empower judges to dismiss cases without valid termination notices.

3. Tenant Attorney’s Fees in Poor Housing Condition Cases

Most residential leases have a clause that gives landlords the right to reimbursement for their attorney’s fees by their renters when they successfully sue to enforce lease terms. The new law gives renters a similar right. Any renter who must sue his or her landlord to have repairs made can include a claim for reimbursement of attorney’s fees in the lawsuit.

4. Extended Right of Redemption (“Pay and Stay”)

Renters will have four chances to “pay and stay,” which they can redeem once every twelve months: within any grace period provided by their lease (usually five days), after the grace period has ended and before the landlord files the eviction lawsuit, when a tenant “redeems” by paying everything owed on or before the court date, and if the tenant pays everything owed at least two business days before the scheduled eviction date

5. Use Writ or Lose Writ

The new law cuts the amount of time a landlord can use a court judgement to evict a tenant from 12 to six months. Lessening this period more realistically reflects the amount of time tenants usually take to pay off judgments for unpaid rent. Since these are usually paid within six months, the new law provides recourse for the landlord if a payment plan isn’t followed without displacing a tenant for months after they’ve paid in full.

6. Pilot Eviction Diversion Programs

By July 2020, Richmond, Hampton, Petersburg, and Danville will have eviction diversion programs. Under these two-year pilots, tenants facing eviction for nonpayment of rent can get their case dismissed if they bring 25% of what they owe to the first court date, pay the balance off in equal installments over the following three months, and pay their current rent on time.

7. Access to Appeal

Tenants who want to appeal eviction orders based on non-payment of rent will have to post only the amount of the judgment to appeal. This is far less than the amount they must pay now, which is usually equal to three or four months’ rent but can be as high as twelve months’ rent.

These new laws are welcome changes that will improve the position of renters in Virginia and help make rental housing a more stable living option for many.  

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