Advocates for mobile home communities and people in need ask county for funds at FY24 budget hearings
Advocates for low-income residents of the Route 1 community, including a mobile home residents’ coalition, faith communities, activist groups and nonprofit service providers, showed up in force last week at the FY24 budget hearings held by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors at the Fairfax County Government Center.
Wearing orange t-shirts, about 80 members of a coalition of residents from four mobile home parks along Richmond Highway appeared at the April 12 board hearing to back their speakers, who called on the county to help purchase mobile home parks in danger of development. Organized by Tenants and Workers United, they also asked for increased funding for mobile home repairs. The coalition was formed this year after two of the parks were sold to out-of-state owners, and a third park saw steep rent increases.
Speakers from Ventures In Community (VIC), a coalition of faith-based and nonprofit groups that provide hypothermia care and food banks, stressed that while supplemental federal food and rent programs instituted during the pandemic have ended, economic conditions for low-income families have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Because of rent hikes, inflation, a wave of illnesses and cuts in job hours, many families are facing food shortages and evictions, they said.
To keep 35 homeless families from losing their overflow hotel rooms March 31, VIC convinced county supervisors and staff to allocate some Q3 2023 carryover funds. Last week, VIC called for more FY24 funding so that funds for food and rental assistance could ramp down rather than being cut off suddenly. They also asked for a higher level of funds at the end of the ramp than the pre-COVID-19 level, according to Joe Fay, executive director of Facets, a nonprofit that runs the family shelter program on Route 1.
Staff at several churches that traditionally minister to the needs of low-income community members testified about declining conditions. Some said they typically recommend that needy people call the county service hotline, but county social workers tell them there is no more relief money and refer them back to the churches.
“Our money comes from God through generous givers, but it doesn’t begin to put a finger in the dike,” said Cyndi Jones, who operates the front desk at Rising Hope Mission Church, “Every week, we supplement 250 to 300 families with food. Every day, we provide lunch to those that otherwise probably would have nothing to eat. During the winter, we allow 28 homeless men and women to find a warm place to lay their heads. On April 1, they walk out the door and are no better off than they were before.”
A Rising Hope Church leader told about a wheelchair-bound homeless man who was given a tent by a friend so he could shelter in the woods this summer.
“A lot of people live on disability income of about $700 a month," said Alicia Archer, Rising Hope’s Community Ministries coordinator. "They spend it all on rent at motels, and it doesn’t last through the month. Some pay about $300 in advance for a week, and then they come here for their food and everything else."
“We used to have about 25 come in for lunch, but last week we had 60 people,” she added.
Rising Hope's pastor, Rev. Kameron Wilds, told the board, “I want to caution you about thinking that ‘normalcy’ has returned, especially among our most vulnerable communities. The impact of COVID-19 economically, socially and physically left its mark on everyone. But among those that were already struggling to get by prior to the pandemic, these impacts have left chasms that a vaccine hasn’t cured."
“Housing has not only become harder and more expensive to obtain, but it seems like a distant and unattainable dream when your first step is to even get into an emergency shelter that has you waiting for weeks on end for a bed to become available,” he said.
Iveth Perez is a volunteer and community ambassador with United Community and Opportunity Neighborhood who has lived in the Audubon Estate’s community for 12 years. She told the board that she and her husband have had a smaller paycheck lately because of injuries and cuts in work hours.
“Two months ago, we couldn’t pay the full rent," she said. "The Audubon Office took us to court and fined us $476 in attorney’s fees plus a $75 late fee. I called the county hotline, but they said they didn’t have funds to help with rent and referred me to other organizations. Most told me that they had no funds. An agency helped us with $550, but it was not enough. A week after going to court, we found the notice of eviction on our door.”
Perez said Good Shepherd Catholic Church, with help from two other churches, managed to stop the eviction.
Leah Tenario, director of Hispanic Ministry and Community Outreach at Good Shepherd, provided additional testimony. “We are receiving a higher number of calls for assistance each month — almost double the number from last year at this time — and our funds run out by the second or third day of the month. I have more than 20 calls at the beginning of the month and am able to help only 12 to 15 of these individuals with a portion of the amount they need."
Indeed, county records show that eviction filings have increased beyond the pre-COVID level — they were lower during the pandemic because of eviction moratoria and federal rent relief. Even a notice to appear in eviction court (an “unlawful detainer”) often results in a self-eviction when tenants don’t know their rights and vacate rather than face an eviction on their record, which could prevent them from getting another lease.
From January through March 2023, Fairfax District Court issued 1,852 unlawful detainers and 764 writs of eviction, according to the Eviction Prevention and Intervention Team at Fairfax County Neighborhood and Community Services.
The Princeton Eviction Lab estimates that tenants without legal representation are 100% likely to be evicted, whereas clients with representation are only 50% likely to be evicted. Legal Services of Northern Virginia is hired by multiple jurisdictions to represent tenants but says they are not able to meet the need.
The South County Task Force and several legal aid attorneys and volunteers proposed that Fairfax County adopt and fund a Right to Counsel rule for eviction court, meaning every tenant faced with eviction has a right to an attorney. A number of jurisdictions nationally have adopted such a rule.
Several groups including the South County Task Force, Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Fairfax Healthy Communities asked the county to increase its fund to build and preserve affordable housing to about $60 million, double the proposed level.
The board is still taking comments on its proposed budget at ClerktotheBOS@fairfaxcounty.gov. The final budget will be announced May 9.
Mary Paden is chair of the South County Task Force and a member of Ventures in Community.