The City Council is figuring out who in Alexandria needs the most assistance through the coronavirus pandemic — and how to get them aid.
City Manager Mark Jinks is expecting roughly $20 million in federal assistance, all of which must be allocated to new programs not in previous budgets and must be spent this year. In a Tuesday night meeting, Council discussed grants and funding needs with various department heads, starting with some of the most basic necessities.
Kate Garvey, director of the Department of Community and Human Services, said her department has seen an increase in “walk-in” requests for service. While she said the DCHS has been fortunate to partner with ALIVE! for food distribution, there is still prominent food insecurity not being addressed.
“We’re receiving more SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] applications in a week than we would in a month previously,” Garvey said. “We had 600 calls in March. We received 2,000 calls the first two weeks of April looking for service.”
The greatest way of benefitting local families in need of food assistance, Garvey said, is food gift cards.
“The demand for grocery gift cards has expanded exponentially,” Garvey said. “Those allow families to have their own choices in what they’re purchasing, not be exposed to large groups, and do their own planning.”
While Garvey said requests for Medicaid coverage have also gone up, it’s not at the same rate as SNAP requests. Garvey said her department is continuing to put out documents and other forms of information to let people know about how to apply for Medicaid.
One week after approving funding for rent relief for residents in the city’s affordable housing, the city council is preparing to look at funding for a citywide rent assistance program.
Helen McIlvaine, director of the city’s Office of Housing, said the goal of a rent relief program is not just to keep people housed during the pandemic, when evictions have been temporarily banned, but to help many of those residents avoid piling up payments deferred during these months. The prospect of piling up rent payments led to protests at Southern Towers earlier this month.
“We would be targeting folks with the greatest need, including those who have applied or will apply to landlords or [Department of Community and Human Services] for relief, or with community-based providers,” McIlvaine said. “Our goal is to provide care acts funds as efficiently and equitably as possible. Looking to reduce future rent repayment burdens and provide a way to provide our partners and multifamily properties to have their relations sustained.”
McIlvaine said the program would look at providing support for all income levels, but would start with the lowest tiers — specifically those making below 50 percent of the area median income.
“We went to multiple property owners and asked them what operating costs were per month,” McIlvaine said. “This program is looking at assistance of up to $1,800 per household for up to three months. With the $3 million that the city manager has proposed we anticipate that with that metric we would be able to serve approximately 1,660 households.”
McIlvaine said it was a small step, but one that was important to help households be resilient. If approved, McIlvaine said her office would be piggybacking on community events to let people know more about the program and invite them to apply through people they are already working within the community.
The City Council also discussed the possibility of assistance for homeowners, but agreed the lion’s share of any initial program should benefit more vulnerable renting populations. Wilson also warned that scrapped real estate tax increase would likely still make a comeback next year or the year.
Stephanie Landrum, President and CEO of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, warned that the recovery phase for many local businesses may not really begin until next year.
“We’ve spent the first phase [of the pandemic] reaching out to as many businesses as possible, seeing what holes still exist for assistance,” Landrum said. “Many programs at state and federal level are immediate phase, but what we need are for businesses to be operating and generated taxes as soon as possible.”
Landrum said many businesses are going to have to make big changes when they reopen, taking new precautions even after coronavirus has hit its peak. That will incur additional costs for businesses that have spent months not making any sort of income.
“For businesses with limited revenue for months to come out of pocket to restart, we see this as an area where the city could step in with a grant program,” Landrum said. “We’ve been encouraged not to think too small about this, and [we’re] looking at the regional approach to business recovery.”
Landrum said some of this will require investments in technology so existing businesses can adapt to online portals and invest in new customers. The new face of retail and service in Alexandria, Landrum said, could also require some easing of regulatory burdens on the city side.
During this discussion, Mayor Justin Wilson suggested this might pave the way for a new discussion about a possible Business Improvement District. One was proposed in 2017, but was eventually struck down when it became clear in public meetings that a portion of local business owners objected to the additional tax burden it would incur.
Staff photo by James Cullum