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Virginia, Ikea give $4M to boost Legal Aid services for residents facing eviction

A group protests evictions in front of the Science Museum of Virginia, where the state senate was meeting in Richmond on Aug. 18. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday unveiled a $4 million initiative to expand legal services to Virginians facing eviction amid the coronavirus pandemic, an effort partly bankrolled by a foundation established by retailer Ikea.

The Legal Services Corporation of Virginia, which funds and oversees the work of nine regional Legal Aid programs across the state, will use the money to hire and support 20 Legal Aid attorneys for the next two years.

“Obviously there is no good time for a family to lose their home, but a pandemic is the worst time,” Northam (D) said at a news conference in Richmond — a city that, he noted, had one of the country’s highest eviction rates even before the pandemic. “The urgency has grown since.”

In the two-year state budget approved in March, as the coronavirus was just gaining a foothold in Virginia, the General Assembly set aside $1.5 million for additional Legal Aid attorneys. But as the health and economic crisis deepened, Northam and legislators later froze that funding, along with other new spending.

At the same time, the restrictions imposed to stem the spread of the virus curtailed hundreds of thousands of jobs, putting more low-income Virginians at risk of losing their housing. More than 1 million Virginians have filed for unemployment benefits because of lost jobs or wages, Northam said.

Between mid-July and August, more than 10,000 eviction cases were docketed in district courts across the state. Northam said the Virginia Poverty Law Center, a statewide support center for Legal Aid, estimates 230,000 will be filed by the end of the year.

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The new funding is intended to ensure that people facing eviction have legal representation if they wind up in court. Those represented by Legal Aid lawyers have successful outcomes 72 percent of the time, compared with 34 percent when they represent themselves, Northam said.

The Virginia Apartment Management Association said it was disappointed with the plan. “These funds would be better spent assisting more Virginians in paying for their housing needs, thereby making the lawyers unnecessary to begin with,” the group said in a news release.

Ikea U.S. Community Foundation is donating $2 million, an amount equal to what the chain’s 550 Virginia-based employees received in unemployment benefits when its two stores in the state temporarily closed early in the crisis.

Northam called the donation “tremendously generous.”

Javier Quiñones, Ikea Retail U.S. president, said in a written statement that the company appreciates “the ongoing support from the Commonwealth of Virginia, including the unemployment funds paid to our co-workers who were furloughed in the early weeks of the pandemic.”

“People are the heart of our business, and these unemployment benefits helped IKEA U.S. co-workers during a difficult time,” Quiñones said. “We now have a better understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on our business, and we’ve decided to pay it forward to support the ongoing relief efforts in our local communities.”

Virginia is matching the Ikea money with money from the Covid-19 Relief Fund the General Assembly created in April. The fund is supported by a tax on “gray machines,” unauthorized, slots-like gambling devices that have popped up in convenience stores and restaurants because of a gray area in state law.

The General Assembly had been poised to ban the machines before the crisis, but Northam persuaded legislators to leave them in place for another year and tax them as a source of revenue for the relief fund.

Housing advocates have pressed Northam to issue an executive order banning evictions, but Northam’s office has raised questions about the legality of such a move.

At Northam’s request, the Virginia Supreme Court agreed in early August to grant a statewide moratorium on evictions through Sept. 7. Northam also has invested $50 million in federal Cares Act money in a rent-relief program.

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