By Hendley Badcock
Vicky Agnor, the only full-time staff member at the Rockbridge Area Rental Assistance Office, said she uses every pencil down to the nub and prints documents double-sided. But Agnor expects to run out of reserve funds this year and will most likely have to shut down the Rockbridge office if local governments don’t grant a $38,000 request for support.
The Rockbridge assistance program helps 140 local families pay their rent through the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as Section 8. Agnor said she fears those families will lose the benefits of having a resource so close to home if she has to shut down the office.
“We know our families…and we see milestones with these people,” Agnor said. “I think if it were somewhere else, they’re not going to get that, and they really need that. They really do.”
With federal dollars, the Rockbridge agency has been helping low-income families and parents, the disabled and the elderly afford housing for more than 30 years.
But the 2010 across-the-board federal spending cuts dropped the funding of the voucher program. While Agnor’s annual budget has remained around $70,000, federal support of operating the program locally has dropped from $63,000 to $44,000.
In 2010, the Rockbridge Area Rental Assistance Office had to waitlist more than 380 local families applying for the Housing Choice Voucher Program. The waitlist has not been opened since.
And providing assistance to fewer families has actually cost the program money. The federal government pays a monthly fee per voucher to each local program, like Rockbridge’s office. This monthly fee goes directly toward operational costs. The budget cuts have driven that monthly rate, and operational assistance funds, down.
Since 2010, Agnor has had to ask Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County for help. She predicts that her reserve funds will not be enough to make it through the next fiscal year that begins this July.
“If we don’t get the funding we need, Rockbridge County is going to have to make the decision if we want to continue having this program here,” Agnor said. “I mean, all of the reserve will be gone and we’ll be in the hole.”
According to the Virginia Housing and Development Authority, most rental assistance programs get support from local governments.
The VHDA, a non-profit based in Richmond, works with the Rockbridge Area Rental Assistance Program and 31 other housing agencies across the state to run the voucher program. The VHDA helps local programs write checks to landlords, handle paperwork and train agents like Agnor.
“In most all of our agencies, the county government or city is contributing to the program so that it can be run successfully and is financially in good shape,” Director of the Housing Choice Voucher Program for VHDA Sharon Fairburn said.
But because these agencies are so dependent on federal funds, it is also not uncommon for a locality struggling in operating its program to turnover its vouchers. Fairburn said that at least 12 VHDA agencies have consolidated in the last 15 years
But consolidating is just what Agnor wants to prevent.
Agnor said that clients regularly call and visit her and she does not want to lose that sense of trust between the agency and its clients.
“I think sometimes we’ve spoiled them,” Agnor said. “But it’s a good thing.”
To keep the program running, Agnor is asking Lexington for $5,000, Buena Vista for almost $12,000 and Rockbridge County for more than $21,000. Last year, she asked the county and Buena Vista for only $8,000 each. Agnor calculated this year’s numbers based on participation in the voucher program.
Lexington City Manager Jon Ellestad said he is willing to pay that amount to keep the program where it is.
“The people who have the need for this program don’t have the transportation that you might want to go up out of the area,” he said.
But other factors may take precedence over the localities’ investments to the housing vouchers program.
Ellestad listed Lexington’s new elementary school and emergency communication system as some of the city’s most costly projects in the coming year.
“It’s almost a perfect storm of issues that are going to be competing,” Ellestad said. “There are just huge increases in our budget this coming year.”
Buena Vista Vice-Mayor Larry Tolley said the city faces budget decisions ranging from library roof repairs to debt services.
“I don’t know how important is to keep this program local,” Tolley said through email. “I am one member of City Council and have one vote, but I can say this Council is focused on the financial condition of Buena Vista.”
In February, Agnor went before Buena Vista City Council to ask for $3,000 – the difference between the $8,000 she requested last year and what the city granted. Agnor said she needed the money to make it through to next year’s budget. The Council did not approve her request.
Buena Vista City Manager Jay Scudder said that he is studying the program before mocking up next year’s budget.
“I have talked about it with the Finance Committee,” Scudder said over email. “I am conducting some research on the demands of the job in relation to the number of customers served under the program.”
Rockbridge County Director of Finance Steve Bolster said the county is still considering budget requests for the 2014-2015 fiscal year.
“The primary challenge we have is the continuation of minimal growth in revenues to meet growing funding requests,” he said in an email.
Agnor said she has thought out all of the ways she can cut back operational costs. Her next option would be to reduce her staff, but even that would not be that effective.
“It’s me and someone 15 hours a week,” Agnor said. “I just can’t.”
Agnor has already sent out budget requests to all three municipalities. She said she plans to present her requests before the city councils and Board of Supervisors during the editing phases of the budget.
If it comes up short, she may have to turn over the program.
“The [families’ vouchers] would have to go outside of the VHDA to another housing authority which would be Covington or Waynesboro or somewhere like that,” Agnor said. The vouchers could also be turned over to another VHDA agency.
Fairburn said that the VHDA is “on the hook” for agencies that decide to no longer run their programs. It will make sure that residents of Rockbridge County, Lexington and Buena Vista will continue to receive that same financial assistance.
“The VHDA will step up,” Fairburn said. “The program will always be there — it’s never going to go away — it’s just who’s going to run it on a day to day basis.”