$1 Million in Assistance

$1 Million in Assistance

Faith coalition straining to help make housing affordable.

— Several institutions in Alexandria’s faith community are pushing City Council to increase spending on affordable housing in the FY2018 city budget.

These organizations financially assist local residents who come to them for help. The Emergency Financial Providers is an informal coalition of the assistance ministries from 11 local churches and faith-based nonprofits. This coalition — which includes only a fraction of the city’s faith community — gave away more than $1 million in aggregate last year. “Almost all of the assistance was provided for rent, utilities, and medical needs with the majority going towards rent,” said Melanie Gray, who convened the coalition, in a letter to City Council.

Five of the participating churches and ALIVE! also wrote separate letters outlining the ways they have seen housing-related needs increase. A few indicate that the need has grown beyond their capacity to meet it sustainably. They ask the city to take further action.

Michelle Krocker of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance, an advocacy nonprofit, initiated the letter-writing campaign. Krocker’s letter, signed by 16 additional faith-based and secular groups, specifies two objectives. The first is that the city “[c]ommit to a base allocation of $8 million annually to support one affordable housing development [per] year.” The second is that the city “[c]reate a local rental subsidy program of $250,000 to support 10 units for extremely low-income households annually.” Representatives from some of the organizations that wrote letters have also scheduled follow-up meetings with City Council members.

The FY2018 city budget proposes $2.9 million in new city funds for new affordable housing, says Eric Keeler of the Office of Housing. These include $2.1 million from the Housing Trust Fund and $0.8 from the General Fund.

A footnote in the budget says, “The FY2018 budget for the Office of Housing increases by 58.6 [percent] from FY2017 levels due to the allocation of $4.4 [million] in bonds for affordable housing.” But this is not new money. “These bonds were authorized in the FY2017 budget and earmarked for spending in FY2018.” Another footnote says that an additional $4.3 million for affordable housing is among “proposed options for additional capital project expenditures,” but only “if additional taxes are levied.” The budget allocates none of its proposed $0.027 increase on the real estate tax for this purpose.

“[T]he Office of Housing has noted that projections for resources are estimated [cumulatively] to be $12 million short to fund pipeline projects” through FY2021, said Krocker in her letter.

“We are dealing with more people needing rent and utilities and an increase in the amounts needed for these items. … Without our help, many of these families and individuals would become homeless,” said Gray in her letter about the Emergency Financial Providers. “[E]ach of our groups turned away families due to lack of sufficient funds.”

“We have been alarmed by a significant increase over the past year in the need for emergency financial assistance,” said the Rev. Donald Fest of St. Joseph Catholic Church in a letter. “The Catholic Church affirms that having a home is a basic human right, a pillar of human dignity and justice, and an essential for the integrity of the family. … To date [in our fiscal year] we have already disbursed $31,000, including rental assistance and security deposit money… That’s a $20,000 (182 percent) increase from the same timeframe the previous year. … We will soon have to divert funds from other ministries in order to continue to help care for those in need. But our present level of assistance is unsustainable, as well as symptomatic of a deeper social and civic poverty. … As we have nearly tripled our assistance to meet our neighbors’ needs, we challenge the city do likewise for its citizens.”

“For over 25 years, Fairlington [United Methodist Church] has provided aid to those who require help in raising the rent security deposit needed to obtain subsidized housing,” said the Rev. Mary Beth Blinn in a letter. “Since the security deposit is usually the full market rate ($1,000-$2,000) amount of one month’s rent, these deposits pose an insurmountable barrier to persons with little or no income… For the past two years, we have provided families with security deposit aid far beyond the amount that we have budgeted. Even then, Fairlington has not had sufficient funds to cover all those who have requested aid. In 2015, we provided $18,000 in rent deposit assistance and served 65 households. In 2016, we spent $14,000 and served 52 households. The reduction of service in 2016 was due to lack of funds, not fewer requests.”

“In 2016, we have assisted 555 individuals with their rent, utilities, and medical bills totaling $96,783.38,” said Gray in a separate letter from Christ Church. “It is clear to us that the demands presented by the costs of rent are rising rapidly, and are making it impossible for low-income working people to remain in the city. In addition, the rate of eviction, and the immediacy with which landlords initiate eviction proceedings, is accelerating at a pace we have never seen. There is no possibility that the faith community can meet the needs of our low-income workers and families as housing costs continue to skyrocket. It is time for city officials to step up and face the reality that affordable housing is simply disappearing.”

“[Episcopal Church of the] Resurrection has consistently increased its outreach ministries to its neighbors in the West End over the past several years to respond to the increasing need as residents move from the Old Town area to the ‘more affordable’ West End,” said the Rev. Jo Belser in a letter. “During the first 10 months of operation [our ministry] helped 284 Alexandria residents with 338 bills; 63 [percent] of those were for assistance with rent. A total of $68,985.72 was given toward bills… [T]he vulnerable families in our city must not be forgotten.”

“Rent assistance has always been the most significant portion of the financial help [our church has] provided,” said the Rev. Oran Warder of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in a letter. “Within the past year, we have seen an increase of 48 [percent] in rental assistance funding, including help in avoiding eviction. … We strongly urge City Council to consider the impact of the loss of safe, decent affordable housing on the lives of our city’s families and children ….”

“[W]e have seen a steady increase in the amount of our funds that are dedicated to paying rent, with 43 [percent] of our funding dedicated to rent in FY12 increasing to 64 [percent] in FY16,” said Diane Charles of ALIVE! in a letter. “ALIVE! values its relationship with the city as we work together to address the housing needs of residents of Alexandria, many of whom are working full-time but [are] unable to afford the rising rents in the city. As a community, we have identified affordable housing as a top priority. We ask that the city build on that commitment by making additional investments in the FY18 budget to support affordable housing developments.”

Other local emergency financial assistance providers and who wish to participate can contact Krocker through the NVAHA web site (nvaha.org/contact-info).