Opinion: Commentary: Bipartisan Effort to Create Nonpartisan Redistricting

Opinion: Commentary: Bipartisan Effort to Create Nonpartisan Redistricting

Last week, two of my committees: the General Laws and Technology Committee and the Privileges and Elections Committee, heard a plethora of bills addressing reform for several pressing issues affecting many Virginians, including nonpartisan redistricting and eviction law.

This is the final session to begin the process for a constitutional amendment to require a nonpartisan approach in time for the 2021 redistricting. Redistricting occurs every 10 years after the completion of the federal census. Virginia law requires that a constitutional amendment be passed twice by the General Assembly before and after a state election and be passed via a “referendum” process by the voters. Nonpartisan redistricting is critical because, for years, politicians have made a practice of picking their voters, rather than their voters picking them. Last year, federal courts required a number of House of Delegates Districts be redrawn due to racial gerrymandering. The 4th District US Court of Appeals introduced a plan for the 2019 election, changing the borders of 26 districts from Richmond to Hampton Roads, shifting the partisan makeup of many, some dramatically, including those of Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Chesterfield) and House Appropriations Chair Chris Jones (R-Suffolk).

The Privileges and Elections Committee heard several possible constitutional resolutions to address nonpartisan redistricting last week including proposed legislation presented by Senator Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) and Senator Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta) which I co-sponsored. That bill would have required full transparency in the process, prohibited any criteria that supports a political party, and focused on maintaining existing communities whenever possible. While that resolution died on a 9-5 vote, we eventually passed out of committee Senator George Barker’s (D-Fairfax) bill which will ensure bipartisan consensus by balancing membership on the commission and including citizen members.

In the General Laws and Technology Committee we heard a number of bills regarding eviction, an issue which has come to light in the last year as one of the greatest issues of inequality in Virginia. In a recent study by the New York Times, it was revealed that five of the top 10 cities in the nation in which evictions are filed are in our state. These cities include: Richmond, Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk, and Chesapeake. Eviction has many serious effects on low income communities including making it more difficult to find future housing, preventing families from building support systems like child care and a steady learning environment, and creating additional costs because often keeping basic household necessities like furniture and cooking supplies is impossible during evictions. It sows long-term instability in our most marginalized communities and keeps many locked in the cycle of poverty.

Over the last year, the Virginia Housing Commission met with a group of stakeholders to identify possible solutions to this issue. The commission endorsed a number of bills including ones to ensure a written lease, extending the period in which a tenant may pay back rent before the sheriff arrives to evict them, and creating a diversion pilot program which will require landlords and tenants in high eviction areas to participate in a payment plan created by the court. I supported these bills, but co-sponsored a more comprehensive bill introduced by Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), which included the commission's recommendations and added the ability for a tenant to reclaim legal fees if they win their case and extended the time in which they can pay rent before an eviction is even filed. This more comprehensive approach takes the necessary step of truly expanding tenant rights in the courtroom.

This adjustment is important because low income tenants can rarely afford quality legal representation against unfair housing practices. Considering that we face an affordable housing crisis across the state, ensuring tenants’ rights is a must.

Virginia has, for far too long, failed to put enough emphasis on providing affordable housing for the working class. This year I am excited that Governor Northam proposed to nearly quadruple the funding in the state’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund (flexible funds that often serve to supply gap funding that can be used to bring projects to fruition) from $5 million to $19 million in his budget. These additional funds are a start, but much more is needed. Additionally, the Virginia Housing Development Authority has put forward $15 million per year for five years in R.E.A.C.H. (Resources Enabling Affordable Community Housing) funding for Northern Virginia. These funds go to loans and grants that support those in the lowest income brackets. We must refocus our efforts on vulnerable populations and enable them to stay in the communities they have developed and in the homes that they have created. This will be an ongoing struggle. As our population continues to grow we have to create affordable housing that grows with it.

Though these issues are complex, and our state is behind the mark in finding appropriate fixes, the bills headed to the Senate floor will move us forward.

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It is my continued pleasure to serve the people of the 30th District.