Your Views: COVID-19 and struggling neighbors

Your Views: COVID-19 and struggling neighbors
A "No job, no rent" sign hangs on a car window in the Southern Towers parking lot. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

To the editor:

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

Just as the response to the virus itself focuses both on the immediate needs of those afflicted and also on the importance of flattening the curve so that all aren’t sick at once – which would overwhelm our heath care facilities, equipment and staff – it is no different in facing the financial crisis of our needy neighbors.

This crisis is impacting everyone from low-income residents to millennials who have lost their jobs and are stunned that they too have no income or savings to pay for their rent, utilities and food needs.

First, it is imperative that we deal with those needing food. Callers to our helpline at the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, to city agencies and other nonprofits are noting their shortage of food. This is despite heroic efforts by many to provide food and meals, including Alexandria City Public Schools; 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 other local organizations and churches.

It’s simply not enough until a) more funds and volunteers are available to those providing food or food cards, b) food supply chains are re-secured and c) more importantly, there is sufficient income for families via unemployment insurance, direct payments under the stimulus bill, SNAP and other benefits. There is hope that this will come together in a matter of days and weeks.

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. All utilities 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 are required to be paid, the financial burden on low-income families would be crushing. It would be similar to the peak in the virus infection, overwhelming the ability of our city agencies and all nonprofits combined to handle.

This will almost certainly occur 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 this curve?

First, once the food crisis abates, Alexandria’s government and nonprofits will have to turn their attention to advocating that low-income families use the benefits they will be receiving to pay as much of their rent and utilities as they can.

Second, the city government and nonprofits must themselves devote as much funding as possible to rent and utilities. Of course, this depends on how much funding the Commonwealth and city receive under the stimulus bill as well as whether donations to the nonprofits increase.

The 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. Utility companies have done this for many years with individual cus- tomers, and I am confident they will do this on a widespread basis, but landlords are not accustomed to this practice.

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

To be sure, just as 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.

Blessings to our Jewish friends for the holy days, Christians for the 50 days of Easter and Muslims for the start of the holy month of Ramadan.

-Jim Larocco President, Basilica of Saint Mary Saint Vincent de Paul Society