RECENTLY, the Virginia state government undertook actions to soften the financial impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the commonwealth’s citizens.
The Virginia Supreme Court declared a judicial state of emergency and suspended all new, non-essential, non-emergency proceedings from March 16 to April 6. This suspension includes the eviction of tenants unable to pay rent as a result of COVID-19.
Also, the State Corporation Commission ordered a halt on utility disconnections by all state-regulated utilities. This order is in place for 60 days.
Both measures are timely and will certainly assist one of the most vulnerable populations in our state: working poor families with an annual household income of $24,000 to $64,000.
So kudos to state government. Many of our working poor families are just one emergency away from not being able to pay their monthly rent and/or utilities. In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, the above actions were certainly warranted.
But such self-initiated, self-help actions to mitigate the consequences (i.e., loss of employment or reduction in hours of employment) of COVID-19 on our working poor families must extend to local governments.
During this crisis, the federal government will not address all crisis-driven issues confronting a state government, and a state government will not address all crisis-driven issues confronting a local government. Local political leaders must step to the forefront.
To that extent, the Fredericksburg City Council should be prepared to undertake actions to lessen the human and community toll the coming tsunami of evictions will have on working poor families when the state’s moratorium on evictions is lifted.
As was addressed over the past year via letters to the editor, local news articles and The Free Lance–Star editorial staff, Fredericksburg was experiencing an eviction crisis well before COVID-19.
From July 2018 through July 2019 there were 757 evictions in the city. That equates to 60 evictions per month, or 15 per week.
During fiscal year 2020, and prior to the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, the city was averaging 80 evictions per month, or 20 per week. So during a reportedly booming economy, year-to-date evictions in fiscal 2020 in Fredericksburg increased 33 percent over a comparable period in fiscal 2019.
With that in mind, and during this deepening economic crisis in which millions of people have lost their jobs and millions more are being placed on reduced hour schedules, one can imagine just how large the eviction crisis and, consequently, homelessness in Fredericksburg will be on the other side when the state lifts its moratorium on evictions.
So what can be done? The structure, but not the funding, is in place to address this looming eviction crisis. I refer to the Regional Continuum of Care that is comprised of numerous organizations (i.e., Rappahannock United Way, Thurman Brisben Center, Micah, Hope House, the Central Virginia Housing Coalition) that offer assistance to families facing eviction, homeless families and families in need of emergency housing.
These organizations, specifically Rappahannock United Way and the Central Virginia Housing Coalition, are non-partisan, nonprofit organizations capable of screening working poor families facing eviction in Fredericksburg and, if adequately funded, providing one-time financial assistance to qualifying families.
City Council should immediately take the lead in addressing this impending crisis within the city, and do so by establishing a Housing Trust Fund that is funded by council action and supplemented via private/business donations. With no staffing requirement for the city, the trust fund could be administered by one of the above nonpartisan organizations.
In the COVID-19 emergency, emphasis is placed on “flattening the curve,” so the medical community is not overwhelmed by a surge of patients with COVID-19.
A similar approach must be taken to address this looming surge of evictions and consequent homelessness in the city. If that surge is not flattened by assisting qualifying families to avoid eviction, it will overwhelm the city’s social services and those organizations addressing homelessness. It will be a blight on the city.
This is a disaster in the making. City Council must be proactive and get ahead of the bow wave.
As Benjamin Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Bob Straight is the leader of the Fredericksburg chapter of Virginia Organizing.