As eviction cases begin again this week in Virginia, federal relief funds have arrived in the region to help renters and homeowners who face financial struggles because of the COVID-19 pandemic to stay in their homes.
STEP, Inc. (Solutions That Empower People) will be in charge of distributing $270,833 in local housing assistance as part of the new Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program announced Monday by Gov. Ralph Northam. The service area for this allocation includes Martinsville and Henry County, as well as Danville and the counties of Patrick, Franklin and Pittsylvania, STEP Marketing and Communications Director Kris Landrum said.
Statewide, the program allocates $50 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for households facing eviction or foreclosure due to COVID-19, according to a news release from Northam’s office.
“Expanding access to safe, affordable housing has been and will continue to be a top priority of my administration, during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond,” Northam said in the release. “The Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program will help Virginians experiencing financial instability as a result of this unprecedented health crisis by preventing evictions and foreclosures and keeping Virginia families safely in their homes as we battle this virus.”
The governor’s announcement comes on the same day that Virginia’s coronavirus eviction ban expired, clearing the way for courts to begin working through a backlog of more than 12,000 eviction cases (known as unlawful detainers) across the state.
Locally, Virginia’s court database showed one unlawful detainer on Wednesday’s docket in Henry County and 16 scheduled to be heard in Martinsville on July 17. These appear to be older cases from before the pandemic, and it’s hard to say how many new cases will be filed now that the moratorium has ended, a local housing attorney said.
“We are expecting to see a lot more cases once people start getting served,” said Rebecca Brown, senior attorney with the Virginia Legal Aid Society.
Brown was hired in February specifically to focus on helping residents navigate housing issues in Martinsville and Henry County, where eviction rates exceeded the state average even before the pandemic. Legal Aid provides civil legal services, including help with eviction cases, at no cost to low-income people.
Under Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program program, households that meet certain income requirements may be eligible for financial assistance with past-due rent or mortgage payments dating back to April 1. Recipients will also be connected to housing counseling and receive other technical assistance, STEP officials said in a release.
Aid is available as a one-time payment made directly to the person’s landlord or mortgage lender, Landrum said. However, more assistance may be granted depending on the availability of funding and the recipient’s continued eligibility and need.
STEP is distributing the funds on behalf of the Continuum of Care, a coalition of local agencies with the mission to address the needs of homeless people in the area.
“This is such a difficult time. STEP is happy to serve the community and the COC by helping to alleviate hardships to families. Stable housing is the foundation for creating sustainable communities,” Executive Director Sammi Rader said in the release.
To qualify, applicants must have a gross household income at or below 80% of area median income, based on the current month. Those with income at or below 50% of the median will get priority now through July 20, the release stated.
For eligibility purposes, income includes unemployment insurance received by any member of the household but does not include one-time payments, such as a stimulus check.
According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development's website, median income for Martinsville-Henry County is $48,000. Income limits for this program depend on family size. For example, 80% of the area’s median income is $33,850 for a household of one, $38,650 for two people, $43,500 for three people, $48,300 for four people, and $52,200 for five.
Applicants must have a valid lease or mortgage statement in their name or other documentation confirming the landlord-tenant relationship. Also, their monthly rent or mortgage must be at or below 150% of Fair Market Rent for the area. In Martinsville and Henry County, this means $813 for a 1-bedroom home, $1,071 for two bedrooms, $1,432.50 for three bedrooms, or $1,515 for four bedrooms, according to the Virginia Legal Aid Society.
In addition, residents must show a loss of income because of the coronavirus pandemic, including but not limited to those who have experienced:
- Reduction in work hours
- Workplace closure
- Staying home to care for children due to day care and/or school closures
- Loss of child or spousal support
- Missing work hours due to contracting COVID-19
- Inability to find work due to COVID-19
- Those who are unwilling or unable to participate in their previous employment due to their high risk of severe illness from COVID-19
Tools to help
An eligibility screening tool is available at dhcd.virginia.gov/eligibility. To apply, individuals should contact STEP’s Supportive Services office in Martinsville at 276-638-8311 or the main office in Rocky Mount at 540-483-5142.
For free legal assistance about eviction, call the Virginia Legal Aid Society at 1-866-LEGALAID (534-5243) or visit www.vlas.org.
The Continuum of Care (West Piedmont Planning District) is comprised of a Steering Committee made up of representatives from a wide variety of public and private agencies and organizations to address the needs of homeless individuals from the cities of Danville and Martinsville as well as the counties of Franklin, Henry, Patrick and Pittsylvania.
Besides STEP, the committee includes Southside Survivor Response Center; Danville-Pittsylvania Community Services; Danville Redevelopment and Housing Authority; Disability Rights & Resource Center; The Community Fellowship; City of Martinsville; Piedmont Community Services; Danville Department of Social Services; Pittsylvania County Community Action; and the City of Danville.
Kim Barto Meeks is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at 276-638-8801.
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