Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: F.C. Supported Renters During Covid, But There’s Still Work To Do

By Dana Lewis

Since the onset of the coronavirus (Covid-19) emergency, the City of Falls Church has assisted 80 residents with rent. Most are residents who either lost their jobs or lost work hours as a result of the pandemic. Some may have had to take care of a sick family member or assist children with virtual school. All of these residents experienced loss of income through no fault of their own. These residents were all ages, races and household sizes. In September of 2020, the Virginia Employment Commission estimated around 1,360 City residents or 9.5 percent of the population up to that point, had experienced unemployment at some point during Covid.

The City Council made the decision to use a large portion of the CARES Act funds the City received, $210,000, to set up a rent assistance program for impacted City residents. An additional $102,000 of Community Development Block Grant funds was also used for rent assistance.

The Housing and Human Services unit (HHS) developed program guidelines and reached out to landlords to encourage them to use flexibility with their tenants and inform them of the City program. They were encouraged to allow payment arrangements with tenants who needed it to avoid eviction. The landlords complied. The City also assisted with utilities, food and health related costs. City of Falls Church Public Schools assisted families of enrolled students.

Staff distributed flyers to vulnerable residents door-to-door. The Office of Communications included a Covid resources page on the website where information was provided in English and Spanish. The City publicized that there was state assistance for affected homeowners through the ability to request a forbearance. The month with the highest number of rental requests was September 2020 as savings accounts had been depleted and family members were tapped out.

On Aug. 10 the Supreme Court of Virginia granted a temporary statewide eviction moratorium that lasted through January 21. On Sept. 1, 2020, the CDC announced a moratorium on evictions for non-payment of rent that runs through July 31, 2021.

Now that Virginia has received CARES Act funding to serve Falls Church along with other localities, residents are able to participate in the Virginia Rent Relief Program (RRP). This program will continue through September 2025. Third-party organizations (such as human service providers) and properties may apply on behalf of residents.

According to the Northern Virginia Housing Alliance (NVAHA) website, federal rules designed to assist affected renters include that landlords who own more than four units must offer tenants the option of entering a repayment plan with no late fees. The state allocated $4 million to expand access to legal services for Virginians facing eviction. Tenants facing eviction for non-payment of rent who lost income due to Covid-19 can request a 60-day continuance in their case. As of Nov. 9, 2020, landlords cannot deny applicants for tenancy based solely on the applicant’s payment history or an eviction for non-payment of rent that occurred between March 12, 2020 and the end of the Covid-19 emergency.

The NVAHA Website also states that from March 2020 to March 2021, out of 2,069 renter occupied units in the 22046 area code, there have been a total of six eviction filings, three total judgments and zero default judgments. Fifteen renters have been assisted through the State Rental program and $113,351 has been dispersed. Housing staff are proud of the fact that our community made and acted on its commitment to take care of its vulnerable residents. The number of evictions is minimal, largely because of City efforts.

What has worked in the City of Falls Church?

Outreach and good relationships with both property managers and tenants — The City stood up a new Tenants Automated Response email and services were provided in several languages. Volunteers assisted with several efforts. Outreach was conducted door-to-door along with a widely distributed newsletter.

Wise use of federal funds — Early on the City Council made the decision that a portion of these funds would be used for rental assistance.

Regional collaboration — The City continues to be a participant in a Regional Eviction Prevention Task force. This is extremely helpful in getting the most up to date information.

HHS Partnership with Sheriff’s Office — The City’s sheriff office informs residents of services, such as tenant and landlord counseling, that are available to them when serving evictions.

Services for Homeless Population —Four City homeless residents were housed in hotels through the federal/State Quarantine, Protection, Isolation/Decompression program.

Going forward as vaccination numbers rise, people get back to work and the pandemic ebbs, the City will need to continue to focus on its vulnerable residents. In particular, the City has a severe lack of affordable housing that was evident prior to the pandemic. The City will have to continue with its good work and forward thinking to build support and meet this demand.

Dana Lewis is the Housing Program Analyst for the City of Falls Church