Backed up: As evictions loom, local assistance hotline struggles to meet demand

Charlottesville DSA housing justice advocates Melissa Gilrain and Lucas Critzer hand out fliers with rental assistance resources outside of the General District Court. PC: Charlottesville Democratic Socialists of America Charlottesville DSA housing justice advocates Melissa Gilrain and Lucas Critzer hand out fliers with rental assistance resources outside of the General District Court. PC: Charlottesville Democratic Socialists of America

Nearly three weeks ago, the Virginia Supreme Court granted Governor Ralph Northam’s request for a statewide ban on evictions until September 7. While the order allows eviction cases to still be heard in court—and judgments to be made—tenants cannot be forced out of their homes for not paying rent.

As state lawmakers continue to debate a bill that would extend the moratorium to April, local residents facing housing instability are currently able to apply to a variety of rent assistance programs, including the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission’s Emergency Rent and Mortgage Relief Program.

In partnership with the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, TJPDC has been distributing $450,000 in CARES Act funding through the program to eligible households in Charlottesville and surrounding counties.

But according to local housing activists, the program hotline set up for Charlottesville and Albemarle—run by community partner Charlottesville Pathways—has not made it easy for some renters to get help since it began accepting applications July 15.

“Tenants have been telling us that they’ve called the hotline over and over again, and haven’t heard back. Or that it’s taken weeks for them to hear back,” says Emma Goehler of Charlottesville Democratic Socialists of America, whose housing justice team has been connecting local renters with financial resources.

“It’s a long process…We haven’t had anyone reach out and report good experiences,” says Goehler of the hotline’s response time.

Applicants have also complained about the hotline’s voicemail message, which, until recently, was only in English, a potential barrier for many Spanish-speaking residents.

“It’s just really critical that the resources for rental assistance are made accessible to all,” says Goehler.

Several other activists echoed Goehler’s concerns at last week’s City Council meeting.

“Myself, and other volunteers in the community, have been outside talking to people who are heading into court, and they have all said that they are unable to get through to that hotline, and that the only way to make contact is to spend the day calling and calling,” said Elizabeth Stark, who is also a member of Charlottesville DSA.

According to Gretchen Ellis of the city’s department of human services, which helps manage the hotline, ERMRP staff have taken applicants’ complaints seriously and have made numerous changes in recent weeks.

The hotline has added operators, and currently has five full-time and several part-time people answering calls Monday through Friday from 9am to 6pm.

The voicemail message was also changed, asking callers to wait to be called back instead of leaving a message, says Ellis. Due to a high number of callers leaving multiple messages, operators would accidentally call the same people back, slowing down response times even more.

Now, says Ellis, anyone who calls the hotline and is not able to get through to an operator, will be called back within one business day, thanks to the additional staff and an improved intake process.

A message in Spanish was added to the voicemail last week, and ERMRP is hoping to hire more hotline operators with language skills. At this time, though, only one part-time staff member (and a language translation line) is available to assist Spanish speakers.

Last week, more than 30 days after the hotline opened, operators were finally able to finish responding to all the backlogged calls. However, data shared during TJPDC’s recent meeting shows that there are still a significant number of applicants going through the complicated approval process.

As of August 20, in Charlottesville and Albemarle combined, 97 applications have been approved, 13 have been denied, and a whopping 265 remaining pending.

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