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Educators call on RRHA to pause evictions to help children in schools

School building
George Washington Carver Elementary School in Richmond's Carver neighborhood. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Updated at 4:25 p.m. with a response from the mayor's office

Despite the omicron variant and spiking COVID-19 cases, Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority announced it will resume filing evictions against public housing residents this month. Two prominent Richmond educators are calling on the authority to halt evictions of families with school-age children until June.

In an open letter dated Jan. 3, Beth Almore and Thad Williamson said 900 families with school-age children could be evicted if RRHA goes forward with their plan.

Almore, a music teacher in Richmond City Public Schools, says they’re worried primarily about the health and emotional impact that evicting school-age children will have on their development and safety.

“Things like this are not just inconvenient and unpleasant, they can change the course of someone’s life and they can shorten their life,” Almore said. “Under no circumstances should a child be unhoused or to have to deal with housing insecurity. And the psychological fallout will be depression, anxiety, fearfulness, and anger. And I worry most of that [they’ll experience] a loss of hope.”

Almore says without stable housing, children won’t have the essentials - such as proper sleep and nutrition - that they need to learn and grow.

“I worry that a massive eviction event like this is going to directly affect attendance rates, it's going to directly impact the ability of children to get to school on time, or to get to school at all. I'm worried we're going to lose some of our students,” Almore said. “Children need stability and they need continuity of instruction to learn.”

VPM reported last month on RRHA’s announcement that lease enforcements against public housing residents will resume in 2022. Those lease enforcements could include evictions for families that owe rent money.

At the time, RRHA representatives said 900 families will be impacted by this policy change. But according to documentation that RRHA shared with Almore and Williamson, as of last month 2,520 families in Richmond’s public housing neighborhoods were at least 31 days behind on their rent. That’s over half of the 4,000 families that RRHA houses across Richmond.

One reason for the inconsistency in those numbers is the fact that RRHA will not be pursuing lease enforcements against families who owe them less than $50, but representatives of RRHA did not respond to requests for clarification.

Those 2,520 families collectively owe RRHA about $1.5 million. Williamson, a professor who has worked on anti-poverty measures and wealth building initiatives in the city for years, says that’s a devastating number for individual families but manageable for the city and its partner organization to pay. Not only that, he predicts that providing this aid will save the city and its social service partners money.

“It is disruptive to schools. It's disruptive to other agencies to which these families inevitably will be coming for relief when they're thrown out. All that is far, far more costly than doing anything possible to keep people in place,” Williamson said.

Families can avoid eviction by applying for rental relief through the state, by signing a repayment agreement with RRHA, or by repaying their full balance owed. If they can’t do any of those things, or if they don’t qualify for relief by February, families including those with young children will face lease enforcements including eviction notices.

So far, RRHA says it has helped 926 residents gain access to rental relief, which has paid the housing authority over $1.8 million in overdue rent in 2021. That still leaves over a thousand residents who haven’t received any aid from the housing authority.

RRHA interim CEO Stacey Daniels-Fayson said families just haven’t come looking for help they’re providing. “To ensure our message is received, we launched an external outreach campaign utilizing television, radio, buses, digital and social media platforms to ensure that we get the word out. The resources are there. And RRHA staff stands ready to assist,” she said.

RRHA has said in the past that it can’t write off or forgive rental payments due to regulations by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees debts owed to public housing agencies.

Williamson says it’s therefore up to RRHA and Richmond’s elected officials to take action to pay these bills and prevent mass evictions. He suggests doing this by dipping into the city’s coffers and partnering with local partners to fundraise the money.

“This is a community-wide tragedy in the making, that we should prevent because nobody wants this to happen,” Williamson said. “So now’s the time to ring the alarm bell, get everyone together, and figure out a different way to do this so we can avoid that outcome.”

Richmond city School Board Member Kenya Gibson has already released a statement on Twitter that she does not support RRHA moving forward with evictions of school-age children.

“I strongly oppose any steps that would lead to evictions, particularly in winter and when families may need to quarantine,” Gibson said.

After publication, a spokesperson for Mayor Levar Stoney sent in a brief statement.

“The Mayor recognizes the collection of rent is a necessary function of the housing authority, but believes it can and should be done compassionately and in consideration of individual circumstances," wrote spokesperson James Nolan. "As such, the city stands ready to collaborate and assist RRHA in its ongoing efforts to provide resources to those families that continue to face challenges in meeting their obligations.”

Lease enforcement against these families has not yet begun. In the meantime, Almore says the city has the opportunity to improve both students' and teachers' lives.

“When students experience adverse childhood events, the schools are the number one place at which they can receive the help that they need,” Almore said. “We have an opportunity right now to prevent hundreds of students from being traumatized, so that we don't have to actually pick up the pieces after the fact.”

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