Council approves funding for food security, eviction prevention

Council approves funding for food security, eviction prevention
Southern Towers tenants and members of local grassroots groups gathered outside the Alexandria courthouse during the summer of 2020 to protest evictions during the pandemic. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

At its legislative meeting on Tuesday, City Council approved $1 million in funding for the extension of food security and eviction prevention programs in 2021.

The approved funding will allow the city to continue its food and rental assistance programs developed earlier this year when funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act expires at the end of 2020.

The city has received two allocations of federal CARES Act funding over the last year, totaling $28 million, according to City Manager Mark Jinks. Localities that received funding through the CARES Act were required to spend all of the allocated dollars by Dec. 31, 2020. As of Tuesday, the city had spent nearly all of its federal funding, about $27.8 million.

Of that funding, about $6.5 million went toward rental assistance and eviction prevention and $3.9 went toward addressing food insecurity.

There has long been hope that Congress would pass an additional pandemic stimulus bill, Jinks said. Although a bipartisan Senate bill is gaining traction, the city, and its residents, could not afford to wait for the gears of the federal government to start turning.

“We’ve got folks that are facing eviction. People’s need to put food on their table isn’t going to go away for a couple months while we wait to see what the feds do,” Jinks said.

As a result, Department of Community and Human Services staff proposed a bridge program that would provide additional local funding to ensure these programs continue to serve residents in need through April 2021.

City staff proposed allocating an additional $375,000 toward its ongoing food distribution efforts, which have already provided more than three million meals to residents through partnerships with nonprofits and churches.

The funding would go toward the large-scale distributions the city has been hosting, in collaboration with local nonprofit ALIVE!, at Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology and Northern Virginia Community College. Those distributions occur twice a month and serve 8,000 people, according to staff.

The city has been providing a monthly supply of food to pantries at non-profits and churches. The additional funding would extend that support that serves between 4,000 and 5,000 people. This local funding would also provide ongoing support for smaller pop-up distributions, grocery delivery for seniors and food for quarantined residents and families.

The city has been providing financial, legal and administrative support for residents going through the eviction process, and DCHS staff proposed devoting an additional $675,000 to rental assistance and eviction prevention.

With the pandemic leaving many residents unemployed and unable to pay rent, evictions have been a concern throughout the pandemic. Resident Sulema Santos Acosta testified at the legislative meeting that she owes almost $6,000 in rent and is scared that she and her children will be evicted and left on the street during the coldest part of the year.

“Eviction is a long-term problem that needs long- term solutions,” Ingris Moran, lead organizer at Tenants and Workers United, said. “We call on [council] to take action by allocating long-term funding for case managers to help people navigate the confusing legal system to avoid being evicted or find new housing.”

In addition to extending local protections and programs, DCHS’ proposal focuses on ensuring residents who are going through the eviction process have information about and access to a new state-level rent relief program.

If residents can get into the state rent assistance program, they are guaranteed monthly rent relief far beyond April, which is what the city can provide, Eric Keeler, deputy director of the Office of Housing, said.

“Currently, they’ve been going through DCHS for that program, but there’s going to be a call center where people will be able to get [help] directly there,” Keeler said. “We’re also working with the landlords in the city so they can apply directly to the state for those funds also.”

Councilor Canek Aguirre raised concerns about how the city is guaranteeing relief is actually getting to tenants.

Management companies have been keeping rent ledgers, which track checks and balances for tenants, Keeler said. The city also has its own accounting verification system to check the status of payments and verify the validity of these rent ledgers.

Councilor Del Pepper made a motion, seconded by Councilor John Chapman, to approve the allocation of funds. Council approved it unanimously, 7-0.

Despite some concerns, members of council praised staff’s efforts to provide these services during the pandemic.

“I think staff did an incredible job, and, having talked with my counterparts around the region and around the commonwealth, I can tell you they are asking us what we are doing, asking for examples of what we have done,” Mayor Justin Wilson said.