In a six-month period last year, the Fredericksburg Sheriff’s Office delivered 435 eviction notices—averaging more than 60 per month.
Sheriff’s Deputy Lt. Scott Foster compiled these statistics for a presentation before the City Council in February. He accompanied members of Virginia Organizing, who are advocating for the establishment of a citywide housing trust to address the affordable housing crisis facing the region and nation.
Foster said he keeps eviction paperwork for six or eight months in case it’s needed in court. The thick stack of unlawful detainers—the legal term for eviction in Virginia—that he showed the City Council last month cover the period between July 2018 and January 2019.
Foster also separated the evictions by ward. The highest amount of evictions—191—occurred in Ward 3, which includes neighborhoods immediately on either side of State Route 1.
The second highest amount was in Ward 1, which includes Idlewild and neighborhoods off Cowan Boulevard, where there were 137 evictions in six months.
Wards 2 and 3 had 8 and 99 evictions, respectively.
“On average, we spend two days a week [serving unlawful detainers], sometimes three,” Foster said. “There is no question [evictions have increased]. There was a time when if you had four, five or six a month you thought, ‘Wow.’ Now, there are 40 to 60 a month.”
The Sheriff’s Office used to send one deputy to serve evictions, but “with the times, we have changed that policy,” Foster said.
They now go in teams of two and when there are lots of notices to deliver, they send two teams.
“It’s increased manpower,” Foster said.
Thirty-nine percent of the city’s 10,080 households are considered by the United Way to be ALICE households—an acronym standing for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed—according to a 2017 report.
These families earn more than the federal poverty level, but less than the basic cost of living for the region. They are usually just one emergency away from financial catastrophe.
In Planning District 16, ALICE families earn an annual income of between $24,000 and $61,000. But according to the report, the annual cost of basic necessities for a household of two adults and two young children is $80,088.
“A lot of people say, ‘I don’t see a problem,’” said Gayle Bracy, a retired federal government employee and volunteer with Virginia Organizing. “For me, I have a house, I have a car and I’m doing OK. But my son, who is 30, can’t get out of my house because he can’t afford it.”
Virginia Organizing, a statewide nonprofit group that works to help the poor and powerless, believes that a housing trust fund could help these families by covering the cost of a month’s rent, the security deposit on a new rental home or the amount owed from an eviction judgement.
“[I have a] desire to see younger people succeed,” Bracy said. “Their biggest obstacle these days is finding a place to live.”
PROVIDING NEEDED HELP
There are more than 400 housing trust funds nationwide, and in Virginia they are established in Arlington, Alexandria, Charlottesville, Fairfax County and Norfolk.
There are several models used across the country. The fund can either be administered by a government agency, a quasi-public body such a housing or redevelopment authority, or a nonprofit organization such as a community foundation.
There can also be funded in many different ways, from private money to developer and permit fees, property taxes, sales, hotel and restaurant taxes, interest on market and government accounts, sale of government-owned property or income from lease of government-owned property—or a combination of any or all of the above.
Housing trust funds typically target households with a total annual income ranging from 30 to 60 percent of the area median income. Funds can support renters and homeowners and can be structured to address the specific housing needs of the population.
Bracy said the fund could help city employees, teachers and police be able to live in the community where they work.
“That teacher, that policeman, they’re quiet, but they’re suffering,” she said.
Though a housing trust fund would help individual families, it would also save the community money.
“I want to keep people in their homes,” Bracy said. “If I loan them two months rent, I’ve avoided a homeless family or a hospital bill.”
Felicia Charles, a Virginia Organizing volunteer and the pastor of outreach at City of God Church in Stafford, has experienced homelessness as a result of an emergency.
In 2012, she was working two jobs when her son got very sick. She had to buy special food to keep his allergies under control and the grocery bills were growing.
“I fell behind in rent,” Charles said.
She ended up at the Thurman Brisben homeless shelter for a few months. Though she was working, it was difficult to scrape together enough money for the security deposit on a new rental.
There were local resources available for food, clothing and counseling, but “the one resource that wasn’t there was the security deposit,” Charles said.
That’s where she sees a housing trust being able to help.
“We could help people not go into a new situation owing so much money,” she said. “This is one of the best ways to help.”
Charles is from Brooklyn, N.Y., and when she lived there she worked as a community organizer for affordable housing. She said landlords there supported the idea of a housing trust fund.
“If landlords know the trust is there for guaranteed money, they will work with the renter,” she said.
Charles said her church and others in her pastor’s network support the idea of a housing trust and plan to devote time and resources towards advocating for it.
“We need to introduce this housing trust, so people are not behind when they’re trying to get forward,” she said. “We want to make sure people can get a key and have peace of mind.”
SOLVING THE PROBLEM
City Councilman Jason Graham, who represents Ward 1, said he wants to know more about housing trusts.
“This is a very worthwhile issue and we want to make sure we get it right,” he said. “We would like to learn more before we say what the city is going to do.”
Graham said the Fredericksburg council is in agreement that housing affordability needs to be addressed.
“The City [is seeking] a housing consultant to help with a wide range of housing-related issues, to help us with some expertise,” he said. “Everyone wants to see an answer to this problem, but it’s too early to make any concrete plans.”
Graham said that Fredericksburg alone won’t be able to solve the problem and needs to work with other jurisdictions through the George Washington Regional Commission.
But Bracy said the issue has been studied enough and it’s time for local governments to do something about it.
“Don’t tell me you’re going to study it again,” she said. “My major point is, it’s not going to get better; it’s going to get worse.”
“[The local governments] are thinking big money all at once, but we can start small,” Bracy continued.
She suggested that the idea of establishing a housing trust could even be voted on by the public in a referendum.
Bracy pointed to the teacher strikes that have occurred across the country starting last year as evidence that people are demanding action from local governments.
“The ‘I’m-fed-up’ attitude is coming to your neighborhood soon,” she said.