Miguel Solla bought a house in Chesterfield County in 2006, shortly after the U.S. Army transferred him from California to Richmond, as an investment in his family’s future.
When Solla received another transfer order three years later, selling the house wasn’t an option because of rapidly plummeting real estate values tied to the global recession. So he decided to put it on the rental market instead.
Solla’s first decade as a landlord was mostly uneventful, then his tenant lost her job due to the COVID-19 pandemic and fell significantly behind on her monthly rent payments.
While the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a nationwide eviction moratorium in September 2020, there was no corresponding action to protect landlords from losing their properties to foreclosure. That meant Solla had to dip into his own family’s budget to continue paying the mortgage on the Chesterfield house.
“People think landlords are wealthy people who have plenty of money, but that’s not always the case,” said Solla, who is now retired on disability after 23 years in the Army. “It was a very desperate situation.”
When the eviction moratorium ended in August, Solla figured he had two options: either evict his current tenant and find a new one or sell the house before his lender began foreclosure proceedings. Then he found an unexpected lifeline in Chesterfield’s Emergency Rent Assistance program (CERA).
Solla was recently approved for a sum equal to 17 months of back rent, allowing him to keep the house and abandon a pending eviction action against his tenant.
“For me, my family and my tenant, it was a huge relief,” he said.
In collaboration with a local nonprofit, Area Congregations Together in Service (ACTS), Chesterfield has distributed most of the $18.8 million in federal aid it received for emergency rent relief.
As of Dec. 15, when ACTS closed its portal to new applications, Chesterfield had provided an average of $5,210 in rent payments and $695 in utility payments to 2,201 households (1,376 of which have children under age 18) and 575 landlords.
The program has served about 5,500 people to date, half of whom are minors.
“Providing rent and utility assistance has mitigated the destructive and disruptive consequences of eviction on tenants and landlords,” said Nicholas Feucht, who oversees the program for Chesterfield’s Department of Community Enhancement.
When the U.S. Treasury Department began providing emergency rental assistance to states in 2020, to mitigate the impact of pandemic-related job losses and prevent evictions, its regulations permitted jurisdictions with populations greater than 200,000 to apply for such funding directly.
Chesterfield was one of two Virginia localities, along with Fairfax County, that launched its own locally administered rent relief initiative.
Chesterfield contracted with ACTS to manage the program, process applications and efficiently deliver aid to qualified households.
“Because we already had a relationship with ACTS, I knew they would be able to staff up and operate the program. That was part of my rationale in asking [County Administrator] Dr. [Joe] Casey and the Board of Supervisors to let us run our own program,” said Dan Cohen, director of Community Enhancement. “There wasn’t any hesitancy. They trusted us to do this, and it worked.”
Treasury Department regulations prohibited localities from spending more than 10% of the rental assistance funding on program administration. That wasn’t an issue for Chesterfield, which has allocated less than 3% toward administrative expenses.
Such efficiency enabled the county to use a portion of its federal funding and enter into partnerships with two other local nonprofits, Homeward and Housing Families First, on homeless prevention and diversion services.
Homeward operates a non-congregate shelter in a manner that is safe given the pandemic, while Housing Families First works to find safe, sustainable housing solutions for low-income families.
“The homeless prevention, mitigation and safety measures were incredibly important,” Feucht said, noting federal funding typically isn’t available to help people get out of expensive, short-term housing situations such as motels.
ACTS will continue to distribute the rent assistance program’s remaining funds until all are expended, with priority given to Chesterfield households earning 50 percent or less than area median income, those where one or more individual has been unemployed for a 90-day period preceding the date of application, those with children under the age of 18 and those with seniors age 65 and older.
Chesterfield recently learned it will be receiving $3.1 million from Virginia’s housing trust fund and another $780,000 from the Treasury Department for emergency rent relief.
That money will be allocated to qualified Chesterfield residents who requested assistance prior to ACTS closing the portal last month and are currently on a waiting list to have their applications processed.