Home is where the health is

Before Amanda Schmitt knocks on an apartment door at Hope House in Charlottesville, she rearranges the cloth bags draped around her shoulder to find a free hand. A girl named Alita (whose last name is being withheld to protect her identity) answers the door; the teenager isn’t the daughter of the house, however. She’s the mother.

From behind Alita’s legs, 1-year-old Tyquese sizes up the visitors. To him, Schmitt is a familiar face whose appearance means playtime. For Alita, Schmitt may be the only adult conversation she has all day.

Schmitt is one of four family support workers for Children, Youth and Family Services. The program is just one of many Virginia social services that may disappear because of mangled finances in Richmond.

On a recent morning, Alita’s was the first of three homes Schmitt visited that day, helping new parents––especially single mothers––cope with the tribulations of child-rearing. To Tyquese’s delight, one of Schmitt’s bags contains a plastic bucket full of toys. Displaying primal human desires to both create and destroy, one of Tyquese’s favorite games becomes stacking multi-colored plastic donuts in a tower, then toppling them with a swoop of his tiny hand.

Schmitt unloads her other bag, full of binders and notebooks, and Alita joins her on the couch to compare Tyquese’s emotional and physical development to scientific standards. The Healthy Families program in which Alita participates is designed to prevent child abuse and neglect. Clients are referred to CYFS by the Health Department, clinics, other agencies or family members. Sometimes the clients seek help themselves. In Alita’s case, a caseworker knew her mother and referred Alita to the program when she became pregnant.

Schmitt says the goal is to help families before there are signs of violence. Indeed, there’s no evidence of dysfunction in Alita’s apartment––the place is as neat as can be expected for the domain of a 1-year-old, and the fearlessly curious and affectionate Tyquese seems equally at ease in the lap of his mother or an unfamiliar reporter.

Nevertheless, as a single teenage mother with an unplanned baby, Alita’s situation is, in social services jargon, "at risk." She had just started her senior year at Charlottesville High School when Tyquese was born.

"All my friends have kids," Alita says.

Asked about her son’s father, Alita gives an it’s-a-long-story look, making it obvious the man hasn’t changed many diapers. She says the family support worker who began visiting her when she became pregnant was vital.

"When they started helping me, they were the only people I saw," says Alita.

Tyquese suffered a stroke at birth, which hampered his physical and mental development. His right arm and leg, for example, do not function as well as those on his left side. Schmitt’s job is simply to check in with Alita once a week, to help her find answers to the myriad questions and anxieties that come with new motherhood, and to make sure Alita remembers all Tyquese’s appointments with doctors and therapists.

There are many good signs, says Schmitt. She says initially Alita reacted the way most teenage mothers do––by clinging to her adolescence.

"At first I thought it would be all fun," says Alita. "We have fun days, but it’s not really that fun."

Since then, Schmitt says Alita has embraced the realities of motherhood. She dutifully puts Tyquese through the exercise regimen a therapist prescribed to develop his motor skills. Tyquese shows a healthy attachment to his mother, says Schmitt, and she is encouraged to hear that the boy is imitating her––he holds a book upside down, pretending to read and helps clean the house, although Alita says occasionally she has to rescue her keys from the trash can.

Like many other Virginia social services, the Healthy Families program that helps Alita and about 60 other local families is now threatened by a State budget deficit and a tax-shy General Assembly.

Just before Republican Governor Jim Gilmore left office last year, he cut the State Healthy Families program entirely, says Jacqueline Bryant, director of parent education and support for CYFS. Last spring, Bryant and Schmitt joined other Healthy Families workers and clients from across Virginia to advocate for the program, flooding legislators with calls and letters and directly lobbying members of the General Assembly’s Finance Committee.

As a result, last year’s General Assembly passed a bill restoring funding for the Healthy Families program, but with an important change. Where it used to come from the State’s General Fund, the money is now comprised of unspent dollars from a Federal program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

The change means, first of all, that Healthy Families, with a 2001 budget of about $114,000, will lose some $25,000 in Federal matching money. Also, Bryant says, by 2004 the State’s excess TANF dollars will run out. She says Healthy Families, like many other social services, is scrambling to find money from public or private sources. Healthy Families has a proven record of success, says Bryant, but the competition for dollars will be fierce.

"The program is definitely in jeopardy," says Bryant. "Finding any money will be hard given the State budget and the economic climate."–– John Borgmeyer

 

Liquid gold

City, County and UVA negotiate the cost of water

As it has for months, water topped the agenda during City Council’s regular meeting on Monday, November 4. Rain has eased fears of impending doomsday, but public officials still face days of reckoning ahead when it comes to protecting the region’s water supply.

On Monday, Council approved an ordinance to raise water rates to $55.47 per 1,000 cubic feet (or 4,500 gallons), set to take effect on November 18. The rate had been $37.16, a special drought rate levied to encourage conservation.

In the local water market, the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority acts as wholesalers to Charlottesville and Albemarle, which then sells the water to residents and businesses. The water system is designed to be self-sufficient, with customers paying for the costs of service. As conservation measures kicked in during late summer and early fall, water consumption has dropped by about 40 percent since August. That means that with less water being sold, officials must charge more to keep up the revenue stream.

"It’s the ultimate Catch-22," said City Manager Gary O’Connell. "The more water we conserve, the more it costs."

The new rates will also help pay for infrastructure improvements to the water supply. The Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority has estimated that meeting water demand over the next 30 years will cost more than $13 million in improvements. On November 4, Council heard about ongoing negotiations between Judith Mueller, director of the City’s public works department, and Bill Brent, head of the Albemarle County Service Authority. The two are trying to hash out a formula for the jurisdictions to share responsibility for improvements to the water system.

On Monday, Councilor Kevin Lynch hinted that Albemarle County should bear most of the burden, since County growth has caused, and will continue to cause, rising demand. "It seems unfair if existing clients will have to pay for future growth," Lynch said.

The formula will not be simple, however. The RWSA is planning to dredge out some of the 40 years’ worth of sediment filling the South Fork Rivanna reservoir, so water officials say it’s apt to ask current customers to pay for that.

Another variable is UVA. Councilor Rob Schilling pointed out that although the City has not grown, UVA certainly has. Because UVA plans more capital improvements and enrollment hikes, Schilling said, UVA should pay for some of the water costs.

UVA is a City water customer. The University maintains its own water and sewer infrastructure on Central Grounds, so in the 1930s UVA negotiated a deal with the City for cheap water. That contract is supposed to last 100 years. Mueller says the City "comes out about even" in its deal with UVA. The research parks at Fontaine and North Fork are owned by UVA’s Real Estate Foundation, not the school itself, and therefore pay the normal water and sewer rates.

Mueller says UVA "understands" that paying more for water is a part of its growth. She says she will negotiate UVA’s share of the cost after she reaches a deal with Brent. The question of who pays what "is a big issue here," O’Connell said Monday.–– John Borgmeyer

 

Home on the price range

Supes tackle affordable-housing shortfalls

In the midst of a depressing third-quarter report detailing a $2.8 million budget deficit in Albemarle County, which was presented to the Board of County Supervisors by Assistant County Executive Roxanne W. White on Wednesday, November 6, there was talk of more than just financial deficits. Affordable housing ranks up there with the best of the County’s shortfalls.

Voting unanimously to approve the Amendment to the Comprehensive Plan regarding the Policy on Affordable Housing, the Board handed the Planning Commission and Planning Department some guidelines for future rezoning and special-use permit applications.

"The goal of this request," says Ron White, Albemarle County’s Chief of Housing, "is to assure we are offering a variety of housing types so people can afford to live in this community."

These housing types will take into account the County demographics and neighborhood models, which include everything from nice apartments to townhouses to single family free-standing homes. The amendment will also cap the costs of these housing types at $170,000.

Although much attention is given to the housing demands of the City of Charlottesville, those who need assistance and wish to live in the County can be overlooked, too. But with this amendment, the County can now work with both the development and financing communities to increase the supply of affordable housing—especially for those earning below 80 percent of the area’s medium income of $50,000.

Proposing to mix incentives for the private developer with non-profit driven financing structures (such as those offered by the Piedmont Housing Alliance), the County should be able to offer extremely competitive mortgage rates to low-income families.

"With just the developer and the County in the picture," says Supervisor David Bowerman, "I didn’t know how you were going to pull this off. But non-profits are really a great answer."

For most area residents, housing costs exceed 30 percent of gross household income. And for a family of four earning $50,000 annually or less, that 30 percent is simply too much. "This is the point in which low-income families turn into renters instead of buyers," says White.

Yet, the answer to the question of how to ensure affordable housing remains affordable is unclear. "How about some assistance from employers to employees?" suggests Chairman Sally Thomas. The idea would be to encourage County employers to set aside money to assist employees with down-payments for homes.

And it seems that the County might be a good place to start. For not only does no employer-assistance plan exist in Central Virginia, there is no such program in place in Albemarle—the County’s second largest employer.— Kathryn E. Goodson

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