Opinion: Letter to the Editor: COVID-19 Crisis and Financial Crisis Facing Our Low Income Neighbors

Opinion: Letter to the Editor: COVID-19 Crisis and Financial Crisis Facing Our Low Income Neighbors

Thousands of our neighbors here in Alexandria have no jobs, no income and no savings. The face a three-front war: what do they do about rent, utilities and food?

Just as the response to the virus itself focuses first on the immediate needs of those afflicted, but also on the importance of “flattening the curve” so that all aren’t sick at once, overwhelming our health care facilities, equipment and staff, it is no different in facing the financial crisis of our needy neighbors.

This crisis is not simply one of those neighborhoods that we know house low income families. We are even getting calls from millennials who lost their jobs and are stunned that they too have no income or savings to pay their rent, utilities and food needs.

First, it is imperative that we deal with those needing food. Callers to our helpline, city agencies and other charities and non-profits are noting their shortage of food. This is despite heroic efforts by our schools to provide food and meals, ALIVE via its mass distribution programs and home deliveries, Senior Services of Alexandria with its Meals on Wheels and food deliveries to the elderly, and many local organizations and churches. It’s simply not enough until at least more funds and volunteers are available and more importantly, there is sufficient income for families via unemployment insurance, direct payments under the stimulus bill, SNAP and other benefits.

I appeal to all those who can give, please join in Alexandria’s annual giving program, Spring2Action. Donations are being accepted now, and the actual day of the campaign is April 14. Please consider those organizations noted above who are dealing with the food crisis, including our own. We are providing thousands of dollars of gift cards to our needy neighbors every day. Go to Spring2Action.org to donate.

But what about rent and utilities? Under the Commonwealth’s Supreme Court ruling, evictions are deemed non-essential to the work of our courts. According to our Sheriff’s office, no summons for court hearings for evictions is likely to occur before July. This means tenants are secure in their homes. Regarding utilities, all have suspended cut offs indefinitely.

But what would happen if individuals and families let their rent (including late fees) and utility bills accumulate? When the summons is issued and utility bills required to be paid, the financial burden on low income families would be crushing. It would be similar to the peaks in the virus infection, overwhelming the ability of our City agencies and all charities combined to handle.

This will almost certainly occur during this summer. The prospect of many families being thrown out of their homes just before the new school year starts is frightening.

So how do we flatten the curve?

First, once the food crisis abates, the City and charities will have to turn their attention more to advocating that low income families use the benefits they will be receiving to devote whatever additional funds they have to pay as much of their rent and utility.

Second, the City and charities must themselves devote as much funding as possible to rent and utilities. Of course, this depends on how much funding the Commonwealth and the City receive under the stimulus bill and increased donations to the charities.

Third, and perhaps the most critical way to flatten the curve, is for all landlords to waive late fees and begin discussions with tenants on long-term payment plans. Our utilities have done this for many years with individual customers, and I am confident they will do this on a widespread basis, but landlords are not accustomed to this practice.

Mayor Wilson has already appealed to landlords to do precisely what is described above. Some have already done so. Many more are needed, including all owners of apartment buildings.

To be sure, many businesses will fail regardless of programs to help them, many private landlords, who have mortgages to pay themselves, will not be able to extend help to their tenants if their mortgage holders don’t treat them the same way.

The COVID-19 crisis has so many negative consequences, none of which are easy to resolve, that we must try our best to get through this together. New, innovative ideas and approaches are needed, but most importantly, let us keep in mind that as difficult as this is for all of us, there are many of our neighbors, businesses and families, who will fall through the cracks without our help.

My blessings to all during this holy season for Christians and Jews.

Jim Larocco

President, Basilica of Saint Mary Saint Vincent de Paul Society