17 Housing instability and homelessness

This chapter presents trends on mortgage delinquency, eviction filings, and homelessness throughout Virginia. Intervention to prevent these crises must be a priority; inaction compounds stresses on social infrastructure like healthcare and education.


Major takeaways in this chapter include:

  • COVID-19 has put thousands of low-income Virginians behind on rent payments—risking an extended eviction crisis.
  • Homeowners in Virginia have fared better since the Great Recession and even during the pandemic, so far. As of December 2020, mortgage delinquency rates remain below 2 percent—likely helped by the federal foreclosure moratorium.
  • Point-in-Time counts across Virginia have shown a general decline in observed homelessness—less than 6,000 individuals in 2020—although this was a slight uptick from 2019.
  • On the other hand, housing instability among Virginia’s school-age children has increased in the past decade. Over 17,000 enrolled students experienced homelessness during the 2019-2020 school year.
  • Black Virginians are disproportionately represented in counts of persons experiencing homelessness. In 2020, over 50 percent of Virginians experiencing homelessness were Black.
  • Supportive housing needs remain high. The number of available units fails to match the demand to safely provide homes for individuals requiring additional support, like case management and health services.

17.1 Impact of COVID-19

In May 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau began the Household Pulse Survey (HPS) to measure the social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on American households. As of August 2021, the HPS is still active and has collected responses covering 34 weeks. This rich time-series data—which is available at the national and state levels—is a valuable tool for tracking how COVID-19 continues to impact Americans’ daily lives.

Along with questions about healthcare, food insecurity, school disruptions, employment status, and transportation, the HPS also asks several questions about household spending and housing insecurity that indicate a household’s ability to make rent or mortgage payments. These prompts allow researchers and policymakers to understand the scope of real and potential housing instability in their state.

Finding 1: Many Virginians are still struggling to make their budgets work.

A quarter of adults still have major trouble paying for usual household expenses.

FIGURE 17.1: Difficulty paying for usual household expenses during COVID-19

Since the HPS began asking respondents this question in late August 2020, two to three out of every ten Virginians have reported that it has been somewhat or very difficult to pay their regular household expenses. Prior to March 2021, this share hovered around 30 percent; since then it has decreased slightly to around 25 percent.

Finding 2: Without continued rent and mortgage relief intervention, thousands of Virginians may find themselves without a home.

Of households behind on their rent or mortgage, about one-third believe eviction or foreclosure is likely.

FIGURE 17.2: Housing insecurity during COVID-19

From weeks one to 12 of the HPS, the Census asked respondents if they missed the previous month’s rent or mortgage payment or if they had slight or no confidence in their ability to pay the coming month’s rent or mortgage on time. From May to July 2020, about 20 percent of Virginia adults confirmed that one of those situations applied to their household.

Beginning in week 13 of the HPS, the Census separated the housing insecurity question into two questions. First, they asked if respondents missed last month’s rent or mortgage payment and if they have slight or no confidence in their ability to pay next month’s payment on time. Households meeting both these conditions represent about five percent to eight percent of all Virginians.

Second, the survey asked respondents who are behind on their rent or mortgage whether eviction or foreclosure is likely in the next two months. Over the last year about 30 percent said they were, which amounts to roughly 100,000 Virginians (although the statistical margin of error for this subsampling is very high).

17.2 Mortgage delinquency

Homeowners can fall behind on their mortgage payments when they lose their job, have unexpected expenses, or confront a number of other financial challenges. Homeowners may be able to work with their lenders to get back on track, but sometimes delinquency is too severe and leads to foreclosure.

Although detailed foreclosure data is not publicly available, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) tracks mortgage delinquencies on a large sample of loans across the country. This information can indicate how many homeowners are beginning to have trouble paying for their homes.

Finding 1: Mortgage delinquency has been steadily declining in Virginia since the Great Recession.

Prior to COVID-19, more than 97 percent of all homeowners were making their payments on time.

FIGURE 17.3: Mortgage delinquency in Virginia

Mortgage delinquency in Virginia has declined steadily since the Great Recession when rates were as high as seven percent and foreclosures were common. Overall delinquency rates for Virginia’s homeowners more than a month behind on their payments have since fallen to between two and three percent in 2020.

Virginia’s delinquency rate recently fell to well below two percent as a result of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) foreclosure moratorium and mortgage forbearance policies established as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Policymakers should continue to monitor the financial health of homeowners in 2021, especially as federal protections may expire before mortgage assistance funds have been fully disbursed.

Finding 2: Metro areas were hit unequally by foreclosures in 2008, but all have made major recoveries.

Most areas of Virginia have delinquency rates well below four percent.

FIGURE 17.4: Mortgage delinquency by region

In the years following the 2008 foreclosure crisis, many parts of Virginia saw sustained mortgage delinquency rates above six percent, especially the Northern Virginia, Roanoke, Virginia Beach, and Richmond MSAs. Other parts of the Commonwealth had less severe delinquency during that period, but they still experienced rates above four percent even after 2012.

Between 2013 and 2020, homeowners throughout the state generally recovered well. Delinquency rates in most regions were near two percent before the FHFA mortgage forbearance and foreclosure moratorium took effect in March 2020. The Northern Virginia and Richmond MSAs in particular saw some of the steepest declines in delinquency compared to their post-2008 peaks.

17.3 Evictions

In 2016, Virginia gained national attention when the Princeton Eviction Lab published data ranking five Virginia cities in the top ten for eviction rates in the nation. Virginia’s overrepresentation in the data prompted massive response from policymakers and advocates, resulting in new laws to cap late fees on rent, source of income protections, and wider education on tenant rights.

Important context for eviction data in this section:

We use the Princeton Eviction Lab data for Virginia to show historical trends because it is the most complete time-series for eviction filings and judgements. A full description of their methodology can be found on their website.

For eviction records after 2017, we use civil case records from district courts compiled by the Virginia Supreme Court and made available by virginiacourtdata.org.

In both datasets, evictions are based on court records, and do not always represent actual physical evictions carried out by sheriff’s offices. In many cases, renters who receive an eviction judgement will move prior to intervention by law enforcement.

However, research reliably demonstrates that court-administrative data (eviction filings and judgements) significantly undercounts involuntary moves made by tenants when facing the threat of eviction or lease non-renewal.29 30

These “informal evictions” are more difficult to record, but may account for well over 60 percent of all forced moves in the United States.31

Finding 1: Eviction rates in Virginia stayed above five percent from 2000 to 2016.

That rate is several points higher than the national average.

FIGURE 17.5: Eviction rate in Virginia

Virginia’s eviction rate, as calculated by The Eviction Lab at Princeton University, has remained above five percent since 2000. As of 2016 (the most recent statewide annual data currently available), the Commonwealth’s eviction rate was five and one-tenth percent: There was one unlawful detainer that ended with a judgement for the plaintiff (landlord) for every twenty renter households.

Finding 2: New eviction filings during COVID-19 are a fraction of pre-pandemic levels.

Pandemic eviction protections have vastly decreased but not eliminated new filings.

FIGURE 17.6: Statewide eviction filings since January 2019

In 2019, landlords filed about 12,000 new unlawful detainers every month in district courts across the state. Those levels persisted in the first two months of 2020 until the onset of COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent moratorium on most legal proceedings issued by the Virginia Supreme Court on March 17, 2020. This order halted nearly all unlawful detainer cases. Fewer than 6,000 new evictions were filed in March 2020 and just under 900 in April 2020.

Monthly filings then slowly increased through the summer, nearly reaching 5,000 in August. On September 4, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control announced a national moratorium on evictions for households who affirm their inability to pay because of pandemic-related reasons.

While the moratorium’s implementation unfolded in September and October, landlords filed nearly 16,000 new unlawful detainers across Virginia. New filings have since declined as state law requires landlords to apply for rent relief before an eviction can occur, and the state is disbursing millions of dollars in emergency rent relief; filings remained below 2,500 per month through March 2021 (the latest statewide court data available).

17.4 Homelessness

Without affordable housing options, many people are at risk of housing instability that can lead directly to homelessness. Slowly improving wages outstripped by rapidly growing housing costs are putting low-income and moderate-income households under pressure to afford food, clothing, medical care, and transportation.

A variety of often co-occurring factors precipitate homelessness. Whether homelessness lasts a few days or years, its consequences long outlast its duration.

Finding 1: Point-in-Time counts show a gradual decline in the number of homeless Virginians.

However, that number increased in 2020 for the first time in years.

FIGURE 17.7: Point-in-Time homelessness count for Virginia

In January 2020, the annual HUD Point-in-Time (PIT) count found that 5,957 individuals were experiencing homelessness in Virginia. This was a 34 percent decrease from the total number in 2010, when the Virginia PIT count had its highest count at homeless 9,080 persons. Since 2010, the number of persons experiencing homelessness in Virginia captured by the PIT counts has been on a steady decline, with a slight uptick from 2019 to 2020.

While the decreasing numbers are good news for Virginia, PIT numbers do not account for everyone in unstable housing situations. PIT counts only measure the number of people who are in shelters, transitional housing, or identified on the street as experiencing homelessness. This count misses those who are not literally homeless according to HUD’s definition, but are instead precariously housed (e.g., people temporarily staying with family or friends or living in motels and those incarcerated or in treatment facilities who have nowhere else to reside).

Finding 2: Black Virginians disproportionately experience homelessness.

Black Virginians make up about 19 percent of Virginia’s population but account for 50 percent of those experiencing homelessness.

FIGURE 17.8: Point-in-Time homelessness count by race

In 2020, the majority of individuals experiencing homelessness in Virginia were Black (53 percent), identified as male (60 percent), and were over the age of 24 (73 percent). This trend has been consistent for at least the past five years.

The disproportionate representation of Black men experiencing homelessness is a racial justice issue that can be linked to centuries of discrimination in housing, criminal justice, education, healthcare, and the economy. Lack of access to quality healthcare and incarceration are conditions that often contribute to homelessness and that are frequently common to the experience of Black and brown Americans.

In metro areas like Hampton Roads and Richmond, where urban renewal and redlining displaced and divested Black homeowners, nearly seven in ten persons experiencing homelessness are Black.

Finding 3: Homelessness among school-age children is on the rise.

Despite declining Point-in-Time counts, homelessness among enrolled students has been on the rise since the 2008-2009 school year.

FIGURE 17.9: School-age children experiencing homelessness in Virginia

Through Title VII of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the Department of Education tracks additional information on children and youths experiencing homelessness who are enrolled in local school districts. The Department of Education defines homelessness differently by including children and youths who do not typically meet the HUD definition of literal homelessness. This data provides additional context to the issue of homelessness in the Commonwealth.

Whereas PIT counts have seen a decrease, McKinney-Vento counts of students experiencing homelessness have been on the rise for more than a decade; 17,496 of Virginia’s students experienced homelessness during the 2019-2020 school year compared to nearly 13,000 students during the 2008-2009 school year.

Finding 4: There is a substantial need for more permanent supportive housing across the Commonwealth.

In 2020, the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) estimated a permanent supportive housing need of at least 20,000 units.

FIGURE 17.10: Demand for supportive housing in Virginia

CSH conducts an annual permanent supportive housing (PSH) needs assessment based on publicly available data at the national level. CSH provides a snapshot of subpopulations that have needs consistent with PSH who are involved in the following systems: homelessness, justice, aging, mental health, substance use, intellectual and developmental disability, and child welfare. Across these subpopulations, CSH estimates that there was an unduplicated PSH total need of 21,750 units in Virginia in 2020.

Finding 5: Homelessness among certain vulnerable populations has declined significantly.

Point-in-Time counts for veterans, those with chronic substance use disorders, and survivors of domestic violence have seen major declines since 2015.

FIGURE 17.11: Subpopulations experiencing declines in observed homelessness

According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, Virginia is among three states and 82 localities that have effectively ended veteran homelessness. Virginia announced this milestone in November 2015, under Governor Terry McAuliffe’s administration, when Virginia met the federal definition of “effectively ending homelessness among military veterans.”32 This definition states that Virginia had no homeless veterans with the exception of those who were offered housing but refused it.

As of January 2020, there were 395 homeless veteran households in Virginia, most of whom found placements in emergency shelters.

While homelessness among survivors of domestic violence has declined significantly since 2015, many survivors still need emergency shelter and permanent housing. In 2020, there were 405 requests for shelter for those fleeing domestic violence when shelters were full.33

Two in three families exiting shelters did not have stable housing plans in place (i.e., they either returned to the home where the abuser was present, exited to unstable housing such as living with a friend/relative or another shelter, or left the area), or their plans were unknown.

The decline in individuals with substance use disorders experiencing homelessness could be largely attributed to the “Housing First” approach championed by HUD, as well as DHCD, which no longer requires sobriety or being in treatment as a condition of housing.

Access to treatment programs has also grown substantially since 2017 due to the Virginia Medicaid agency’s implementation of Addiction, Recovery, and Treatment Services (ARTS).

An independent evaluation by Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine showed that 63 percent out of 734 individuals using ARTS experienced improved housing conditions.34

Finding 6: The number of permanent supportive housing beds has been slowly increasing, but still does not meet demand.

When compared to PIT counts, the gap in PSH units for the chronically homeless has been narrowing.

FIGURE 17.12: Point-in-Time count and permanent supportive housing beds

Virginia has been steadily increasing its supply of PSH in the last decade. Virginia has doubled the number of PSH beds reported by Continuums of Care (CoC), from 2,164 reported year-round PSH beds in 2010 to 4,660 in 2020.

Although this is a major increase, the supply of PSH is still not enough to cover the number of people experiencing homelessness. In 2020, there was a gap of at least 1,297 PSH beds. While it may appear that Virginia could exceed its supply of PSH beds according to its PIT count, the assessment of PSH needs must include populations outside of CoC systems. As noted by CSH, the estimated need for PSH units is greater than 20,000.