Last year, Ghulam Akram was getting $100 a month from the county. This year, it went down to $89 a month. On Saturday, County Board members may have lowered those payments even more.
Akram, a Pakistani cab driver, lived with his wife and two teenage children in an apartment in South Arlington. Their apartment cost $700 a month last year, and Akram got a county housing grant of about $100 a month to defray part of the cost. They weren’t in danger of being evicted; both Akram and his wife worked. “It was not a big deal,” said Akram.
They qualified for their housing grant in part because of their children. County renters who are permanently disabled, 55 or older, or working families with children under 18 have been eligible for housing grants from the county’s Department of Human Services. The program went through several years when few new renters applied, a situation the County Board worked to correct two years ago.
Arlington’s housing grants program already outstripped similar programs in other jurisdictions. Fairfax County’s grants program is budgeted at $275,000 and only serves renters 65 or older, or with disabilities, said Walter Zaumseil, a planner for the Department of Human Services’ economic independence division. In Alexandria, he said, the grants program gets $210,000, and only serves senior renters.
In the county budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, Arlington Board members increased funding by an additional $876,023 for the housing grants program, putting funding for the program at $3.4 million, in order to serve households on county waiting lists.
They may have been too successful. On Saturday, June 12, County Board members unanimously approved a measure that would allow County Manager Ron Carlee to cut housing grants by 5 percent, and raised the senior grant eligibility to 60 years.
<b>CUTS IN GRANTS WILL</b> affect all 670 households currently receiving county housing grants, and the lower payments will also go into effect when new households sign up. The size of the cut means that families formerly receiving $800 in rental assistance each month will soon receive $760, and $80 grants would be cut to $76.
Board member Chris Zimmerman voted to allow Carlee to cut grants by 5 percent, but worried that the Board was undercutting its own intentions. “I’m concerned about winding up where we were before: not providing assistance to individuals who need it.”
This year, Akram’s rent went up to $735, and the housing grant payments are around $89 a month. Akram is receiving federal disability payments, but he’s been working less. Under the new county guidelines, their monthly grant could go down to $85.
Still, Akram said his family still has it easy. Without that money, they wouldn’t have to move. “It’s not hard to handle this situation.”
<b>BUT AKRAM SAID</b> he could not understand the rules behind the county’s grants.
“I don’t know how it’s working, who makes the decision, to deal this way.” Grant recipients must be working certain hours to receive more money, he said. “You’re supposed to work at least 60 hours a week,” Akram said. “If somebody’s working 60 hours a week, I don’t think they need a housing grant or any other help.”
John Antonelli, a member of the county’s affordable housing advisory commission, saw similar contradictions at work in the Board’s vote on Saturday. “You had a program that, initially, people weren’t able to use,” he said. “Now you make it more user friendly, and lo and behold, people used it. So what do you do? You cut their grant by 5 percent.”
Initially, county staff proposed that the Board give Carlee authority to cut grants by 25 percent — an initial cut of 5 percent, with additional cuts imposed in increments of 5 percent, as necessary.
<b>THOSE CUTS</b> would have meant that a family receiving an $800 grant would have received only $600 following all cuts; a family receiving $80 a month would have gotten only $60; and Akram’s grant would have fallen to $67 a month.
Rather than cutting anything, Joe Wholey, speaking for the non-profit Alliance for Housing Solutions, proposed adding just over $1.1 million to the housing grants, for a $4.5 million budget. Board members passed their budget before the Assembly, he noted, and unforeseen state revenues added to additional tax revenues from January assessment increases would allow for that kind of funding for housing grants.
In the end, said Zimmerman, it was a shame that the debate was taking place at all. Discussing local housing stipends “is a travesty in a country as wealthy as ours,” he said. It should be the federal government funding such programs, taking the decision out of the County Board’s hands once and for all.