By Emma Malinak
Rockbridge County will hand its rental assistance program over to the state’s housing agency because it is underfunded and failing to meet local needs.
The Rockbridge Area Rental Assistance Office is on track to receive less than half the state and federal money it needs to operate this fiscal year. Instead, Rockbridge taxpayers are supporting the program that doesn’t always serve local families. Indeed, rental vouchers meant for Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge residents often go to people living in other counties and states.
The decision comes at a time when the nation is facing skyrocketing rent increases. Prices have risen nearly 22.5 percent since the start of the pandemic, adding $368 to monthly rent bills, according to an October 2023 report from Rent, an organization that analyzes trends in rental housing.
“The state is handling this so poorly that it’s become impossible for us to manage.” – Leslie Ayers, Rockbridge County Supervisor
Shadrey Sands, programs manager at the Rockbridge Area Relief Association, said locals are struggling to pay their rent now that COVID-19 relief funds have dried up. The organization runs a rental assistance program, separate from the state’s program, that prevented 199 evictions in 2022 and is on track to help even more families this year.
“We’re as busy as we’ve ever been,” Sands said in a phone interview on Monday. “I got 20 calls before lunch time just today. Every single day, we’re getting calls from folks who are experiencing their most stressful moments. They don’t know if they’ll have a place to sleep or if their lights will stay on.”
The Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Oct. 23 to stop administering the state program that has distributed rent vouchers since 1980.
It is unclear whether Rockbridge’s office will be taken over by another local agency or by Virginia Housing, the not-for-profit organization created by the state to run housing aid programs. Regardless, the office will have reduced hours and no full-time staff, which will likely cause future voucher applicants to experience delays and inconveniences.
“The state is handling this so poorly that it’s become impossible for us to manage,” Rockbridge County Supervisor Leslie Ayers said. “We’re trying to put it back squarely where it belongs and tell the state, ‘You need to fix this.’”
The Housing Choice Voucher Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, helps low-income people access safe housing by providing a monthly voucher that covers all or part of monthly rent bills. Rockbridge County Housing Supervisor Bruce Sigler said monthly vouchers can range in value from $25 to more than $1,500 to cover both rent and utility bills, depending on families’ financial needs.
Virginia localities that don’t have their own housing agencies, such as Rockbridge County, enter agreements with Virginia Housing to distribute the vouchers.
Virginia Housing gives Rockbridge County $37 per month per voucher it administers. That is supposed to fund everything the office needs to run the program for its more than 100 voucher-holders, from staff salaries to ink cartridges and printer paper.
But Sigler, who has been running the voucher program since 2020, said expenses have outpaced Virginia Housing’s reimbursements. This fiscal year, the county will only get $49,512 from Virginia Housing, according to a report written by Rockbridge County Administrator Spencer Suter. That is less than half of the program’s $103,075 budget.
“Every single day, we’re getting calls from folks who are experiencing their most stressful moments. They don’t know if they’ll have a place to sleep or if their lights will stay on.” – Shadrey Sands, Programs Manager, Rockbridge Area Relief Association
Sigler said the department hasn’t been getting fully reimbursed for at least a decade. The county, Buena Vista and Lexington have split the cost every year based on the average number of clients served in each area.
The localities were willing to chip in when they could see the program’s success, Sigler said.
“We would have clients that would be homeless without this program,” he said. “The extra help that this office provides, no matter the amount, allows clients to be able to buy their prescriptions and food, pay their utility bills, and everything else. It gets them out of a hole.”
But local government leaders are hesitant to fund a program that doesn’t always support Rockbridge area residents.
In the past, Sigler said, his office could give priority to locals who applied for vouchers. But in 2021, Virginia Housing implemented a new lottery system to choose which applicants are admitted to the waitlist for vouchers in each rental assistance department.
Of the 203 people currently on Rockbridge’s waiting list, only 14 are from the county, Buena Vista or Lexington, Sigler said. He has 22 open vouchers now, which means at least eight will be given to residents outside the county. Sigler said about 40 or 50 locals applied to be on the waitlist but weren’t accepted by Virginia Housing’s lottery.
Vouchers are portable, meaning a recipient only needs to live in the county where their voucher comes from for a year before they can take their voucher anywhere else in the nation. So any U.S. citizen can apply to be on Rockbridge’s waiting list, as long as they’re willing to relocate for a year.
Those problems, in addition to a “continual lack of communication” from Virginia Housing officials, prompted Sigler to urge local government officials to stop financing the program. He made the recommendation last spring when he announced he would retire in November 2023.
That’s when Suter started searching for solutions. He first asked leaders of the Rockbridge Area Department of Social Services if they would be willing to administer the program, but they declined.
Dinah Hupman, director of the local social services department, said the office can’t deviate from the Virginia Department of Social Services. Because the office’s computer systems and human resources network are run by the state, it can’t pick up any programs that the state doesn’t mandate.
Suter said he then asked the city managers of Lexington and Buena Vista to take over the program. They said no.
Lexington City Manager Jim Halasz said the cost of the program isn’t the issue. It’s the “principle” of supporting a program that isn’t working for locals.
“The same issues that they have in the county would just be transferred to us. There’s no real benefit in that,” he said. “If we were getting more benefit—more certificates helping more of our folks—the decision would be different.”
Buena Vista City Manager Jason Tyree agreed.
“If we have a certain number of vouchers, they should be dedicated to the folks who live here, especially when our taxpayers are paying for it,” he said.
That left Suter with no choice but to ask the Board of Supervisors to allow him to end the county’s agreement with Virginia Housing. Now, the state organization has 120 days to either find another local agency to administer Rockbridge’s vouchers or send their own staff from Richmond headquarters to operate the Rockbridge office.
Sigler said he thinks current voucher-holders will not be affected by the change.
“I wouldn’t have made this recommendation if I didn’t feel that Virginia Housing would be able to take over the program,” Sigler said.
But Sigler said future applicants may face challenges. Currently, Sigler is in the office full-time and can answer questions and help clients with their applications in person, over the phone and by mail. He said the program’s new administrator will likely be in the office only one or two days a week because they will have other localities to serve.
Suter said the rental assistance office in the county administrative building will remain open to provide a space for the new administrators to take appointments whenever they are in town. The new local social services building, which will be constructed off Route 60 near the 911 center in Buena Vista over the next two years, will include an office for the voucher program as well.
A Virginia Housing official said Rockbridge County is not the only locality to end its service agreement with the organization. Other departments have struggled with staff turnover and funding as “costs continue to rise across the board,” according to a statement from Virginia Housing.
“Situations like this are addressed on a case-by-case basis, and we have not yet finalized what the solution will be,” according to the statement. “However, regardless of the solution, the Rockbridge community will not lose access to their vouchers.”