Fr. Daniel Velez Rivera, of St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Leesburg, took a call from Loudoun Cares in mid-March asking for his help aiding the Latino community as the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic were first felt stateside. His job? Working through Catholic Charities to provide rental assistance to Loudoun residents.
As a pastor, Velez Rivera already had a nontraditional work schedule, usually working six days a week. Now, he works seven days a week spent in large part supporting the rental assistance program. And those days can be long, sometimes close to 20 hours.
“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” he said, following a 14-hour workday. “I pray that I would’ve said yes even knowing what I know now.”
He spends much of his day camped out in his cozy home office, combing through a database of the hundreds of area residents who have reached out for support. The majority of his work is with the local Latino community, some of whom are undocumented immigrants.
“The most vulnerable population in the county is the Latino population who is the poorest,” he said. “They’re the people who cook your food in restaurants and serve it. They paint your bedrooms, do your plumbing. This is the essential worker in Loudoun County. What’s going to happen with their home in two months? We don’t have the answer for that.”
Nationwide, many economists, elected officials and everyday citizens are concerned what the impact of ending of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s moratorium on evictions will look like. Unless it is extended, beginning in January, 2.4 million to 5 million American households are at risk of evictions and could see themselves shown the door at their own homes.
Velez Rivera has a database of 600 residents that he’s helped to provide rental assistance funding through Catholic Charities, or through CARES funding received by St. Gabriel’s Church. Between the two, he’s been able to secure hundreds of thousands of dollars to support those behind on their rental obligations.
“I’m a one man show,” he said. “And I want to disburse every single bloody penny I can.”
In Loudoun and elsewhere through the U.S., court proceedings for evictions are already underway, but the moratorium forbids anyone to be physically evicted from their homes before the end of the calendar year if the eviction is rent-based, rather than for breach of contract reasons. Landlords can get a judgment for the monetary amount owed to them from their tenants, but cannot kick them out until after Jan. 1.
So far, the number of eviction actions, or unlawful detainers, passing through the court system in Loudoun is actually lower than in 2019. Comparing March to December 2019 to March to December 2020, the number of unlawful detainers recorded in Loudoun County General District Court is 743 less, with 1,895 recorded in the 2019 timeframe compared to 1,152 for March through December of this year, according to Courtney Brill, the court’s civil supervisor. These numbers can include cases where the landlord took possession of the property or cases that were dismissed. For January, 62 such hearings are scheduled, she said.
But it is the number of cases that won’t show up in the court system that may be the most concerning.
Velez Rivera and Valerie Pisierra, executive director of Loudoun Cares, point to the numbers of residents who are not traditionally housed. They may be sub-leasers, renting a room from someone who owns or rents a property, or individuals or families that have already left their residences because of an inability to pay and are now living with family members, often in tight spaces.
“For our nonconforming renters that help is very limited,” Pisierra said. “They may have a six-month need, but we can only find funding for a month and a half. We hope that that the person who is renting to them understands and is gracious with them and works with them, but that month and a half isn’t going to guarantee that they’re going to stay in that home when they owe six month’s rent.”
Yolanda Stevens, assistant director of the Loudoun County Department of Family Services, has overseen the county’s rental assistance program throughout the pandemic. Residents are eligible to receive up to nine months of rental assistance and, to date, the county has given support to 350 households, with aid totaling $1.5 million. The average monthly rental payment disbursed has been around $1,645, she said.
Although CARES funding needs to be spent by year’s end, Stevens said the county government also has some Community Development Block Grant and local forms of funding it will use to help residents into the New Year.
Many nonprofit organizations have also been working together to provide rental assistance to residents who have been financially impacted by the pandemic. The CARES Act federal stimulus legislation funding has been critical to provide the funding needed to achieve this, Pisierra said. And, while the funding has gotten them through 2020, Pisierra said she is concerned about what will happen if more federal help doesn’t come to stem a wave of evictions.
“My biggest fear is all these people that we have supported so far, if funding doesn’t come in to support them further and landlords are allowed to start evicting, we’re looking for a tsunami of homeless. That’s the fear we have just seeing it day in and day out,” she said. “I don’t want to be the voice of doom. I want to be the person who is optimistic, but the situation is really dire.”
Pisierra and others acknowledge that Loudoun County may be better off than other areas of the country because of its proximity to the federal government and typically low unemployment. But, even if the estimate of 1% to 2% of the county’s 400,000-plus-person population being in danger of eviction is true, that is still a considerable number of people, at 4,000 to 8,000 people.
If those numbers bear out, “We’re going to overrun any type of low-income housing, any type of shelters,” she said.
Patty Young, principal broker for Pearson Smith Realty, said she believes it will be the landlords operating without management company oversight that will be the most in trouble come January. Those who have tenants behind on rent do not have some of the tools at their disposal that do those supported by a management company, she said. As an example, she pointed to the 35-day-long government shutdown that stretched from the end of December 2018 into January 2019. Management companies were able to offer payment plans and credit card financing, tools she and others in the industry have again put in place to navigate the current economic crisis.
Young predicts that the impact of evictions may not come as early as January, because of the backlogs at the court system. But she also predicts that increases in foreclosures and short sales could also be forthcoming.
“We’re not going to get out of this unscathed,” she said.