As the saying goes, home is where the heart is.

And in its physical manifestation as housing, home is very much the heart, central to all other aspects of a person’s life. If someone loses their housing, they might not be able to get to work as easily, and they could lose their job. If they lose their job, they could lose custody of their children. 

If someone loses their housing and has to move, they could lose social and family connections that are crucial to their health and wellbeing. Their children may have to change schools. They may have to sleep outside, in their cars, in a homeless shelter. The spiral toward homelessness, toward being unhoused, is difficult to stop once it’s begun.  

This, and so much more, is what’s at stake for many local individuals and families as the pandemic continues.  

The most recent federal stimulus package included a significant amount of money for rent relief, and many local residents are likely eligible for the program (as well as some other eviction protections for tenants, but those are  separate).

Eligibility for the program is one thing, but access is another thing entirely, and a few different organizations in town, including the Legal Aid Justice Center, Sin Barreras, and the Jefferson Area Board for Aging are offering assistance navigating the rent relief program application process.

Virginia currently has around $700 million in federal funds to distribute for rent relief, said Ray Szwabowski, an attorney working as an RRP application navigator for the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville.

The Department of Housing and Community Development is the organization now in charge of administering the Virginia Rent Relief Program (RRP), and they’re working with Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) of Virginia to do so.

“There’s this big bucket of money, and then there are all these people in trouble, and we’re trying to shorten the distance between them,” said Szwabowski of the application navigation efforts. “We’re trying to connect the renters in need and the landlords in need to the money that’s sitting there, available.” 

The hope is that the Virginia Rent Relief Program will help people stay in their homes. Many evictions are backlogged from the past 18 months, said Szwabowski, when landlords could not evict tenants for nonpayment of rent due to a few overlapping tenant protections on the state and federal levels during the pandemic. 

“Hopefully before they do that, we’ll be able to catch some of them and help [landlords] and their tenants apply for this money, because it’s a much more productive solution than trying to evict somebody,” he said. Plus, he said the program is “pretty generous.”

Folks can apply for funds to pay overdue rent, late fees, and any related court costs back to April 1, 2020, as well as up to three months of payment into the future. Total payments can be up to 15 months of rent.

There are a few eligibility requirements, too:

  • Household income must be at or below 80% of the area median income (adjusted for family size), which for a family of four in the Charlottesville area is at or below $74,950/year;
  • The household must also pay rent that is at or below 150% of fair market rent, which, for a four-bedroom in the Charlottesville area is at or below $2,947.50 per month;
  • COVID-19 has caused the household financial hardship, so, fewer hours at work, loss of a job, need for more childcare, inability to work, etc.

“A lot of people in [the Charlottesville area] will qualify for this, particularly low-income folks,” said Szwabowski.  

Both tenants and landlords must participate in order to submit an application, said Szwabowski, though the tenant’s portion of the application is more time-intensive and could take “several hours over several days, because you’re collecting documents, submitting them, maybe collecting some more documents, submitting them, then talking to the landlord, having them submit documents. That’s why we have navigators, to help make sure [applications] get over the finish line.” 

The Legal Aid Justice Center opened its RRP assistance phone line, 434-326-4305, on Monday, and calls are already coming in, said Szwabowski, who is one of two RRP navigators working for LAJC. 

While the RRP is generous and could potentially help out a lot of people locally, various inequities in the application process threaten to shut folks out of the program.

Availability does not always mean “available in practice,” said Javier Raudales, client service coordinator at Sin Barreras (“Without Borders”), a local nonprofit that works alongside the local Spanish-speaking community in a variety of ways, including on social, legal, education, and healthcare services.

“For the community that we work with, English is not their primary language, or they’re unfamiliar with an online application like this, or there’s lack of familiarity with programs like this, or lack of trust with programs like this,” said Raudales.

Not everyone has a computer, internet access, or a scanner to scan documents. And even if they do, Raudales points out, the application is in English only; there is no translation into any other language. The rent relief program’s call hotline offers both English and Spanish options, but that is for questions only, not for application assistance, or for assistance communicating with a landlord across a language barrier. And even then, people in the Charlottesville area speak a variety of languages, not just English and/or Spanish.

Immigration status can further complicate the process, said Raudales. American citizens will likely have an easier time than, say, permanent residents or undocumented folks, who might not be able to safely share all of the information required in the application. Sin Barreras works with community members of varying status, and, Raudales points out, some of these folks do not have checking accounts and deal exclusively in cash, and often can’t get or give proof that they’ve worked a certain number of hours in a given week or month, all things that complexify the application process and ultimately affect whether or not an individual or family receives aid. The COVID-19 pandemic has also overburdened social service programs that would normally be able to help out with some of those barriers, Raudales added.

Since the application is online only, folks who can speak, but not read, English, are shut out as well.

These additional hurdles add more time onto an already time-consuming application, and that alone is enough to deter potential applicants, said Raudales. 

“People underestimate how much people take into account the value of their time,” he said. “I think it’d be unfair to not consider how reasonable it is to not want to try to go through the process. Especially if you feel like you have to keep sending in documentation, or they’re asking for every detail in your life. On top of that, you’re going through the crisis of trying to put your bills together. And then on top of that, you add on the things that everyone’s experienced in the past year around COVID. There’s a real equity question in regards to the program not being accessible as it should to everyone who works, who lives, in the commonwealth.”

Raudales isn’t confident that the program itself will become more accessible—in fact, he thinks it’s less accessible now that it’s centralized through HOME of VA and the Department of Housing and Community Development. Earlier versions of the program were administered through more localized organizations like the United Way. That’s why nonprofits and individuals are stepping in to help in the ways that they can.

“I’m concerned that, because this was never known as something that was very accessible, that there’s not going to be a lot of people reaching out for it. But I know there’s more than enough people who could qualify, for whom the RRP would really help them,” he said before wondering out loud about what the eviction crisis will look like for the community members he works with, once the eviction protection programs really are done. 

At the moment, Sin Barreras offers application help by appointment on Wednesdays (call 434-531-0104), and Raudales said they plan to do so through the fall. LAJC’s navigators speak Spanish as well, so they can help anyone who might not be able to make a Wednesday appointment.

Age presents an entirely different set of inequities as well, and the Jefferson Area Board for Aging (JABA) is equipped to help older adults with their particular needs. For instance, older adults with vision or hearing loss might have a harder time filling out an online application or calling a hotline for help. Others with, say, dementia or Alzheimer’s could face a variety of challenges filling out a detailed application that requires the collection of sufficient documents and highly detailed life information.

“Many seniors are living on fixed incomes, so they were less affected by the sudden loss of jobs, etc., during COVID,” said Ginger Dillard, JABA’s director of advocacy services who also served on the local RRP committee before the state restructured the administration of funds. “However, many other seniors continue to work to supplement Social Security or are not old enough to draw benefits, and they suffered just like their younger counterparts.”  

JABA (434-817-5253) helps older adults with rent and mortgage payments even when there’s not a pandemic, but Dillard said that the nonprofit organization has seen a rise in requests for support. Perhaps more folks need help, she said, or they’re more aware of the services.

“Previously, people may not have sought support, and any who have are aware of the lack of resources and the long waits for subsidized housing even if they were eligible,” she said. She’s hoping that their outreach will let even more folks know that the rent relief options are available to them as the pandemic continues.

The money is there, and the application navigators are ready to help. 

“It’s working,” Szwabowski says of the rent relief program. “People are already getting paid, renters are staying in their houses all over Virginia. Landlords are getting paid. This money is flowing. My understanding is that it can flow pretty quickly once the application is in. We want to open the floodgates. We’re ready, we’re trying to spread the word. We’ve got the capacity to help people. Now it’s just a matter of getting the word to them and hoping they can find us.”