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Tough rental market requires negotiation from housing advocates for some

A portrait of two women standing next to each other.
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Cindy Moussavou, Program Director of Housing Families First (left) is photographed with Beth Vann-Trumbull, Director of Housing Families First (right).

Housing Families First served nearly 700 people regionally in 2022.

Cindy Moussavou and Beth Vann-Turnbull are working to ensure struggling families across Virginia find permanent places to live ... all while rents soar, and the number of available houses and apartments dwindles.

They help operate the program Housing Families First, which served nearly 700 people last year.

The two recently spoke to VPM Morning Edition Host Phil Liles about the obstacles they face and the tools they’re using to overcome them.

VPM News: Beth, tell me about your organization. How is it funded?

Beth Vann-Turnbull: All of our programs are focused on moving people into permanent housing. And so, we have a couple of community programs where we're helping people find rental homes leased in their own name in the community, both in partnership with three local school systems, and a program that's a little more intensive for people with higher barriers.

Our budget's about $2 million or a little more. Half of that is private philanthropy from individuals, foundations, congregations, civic groups. And the other half is a combination of federal, state and local funding,

How long has it been going on within the school system that you have had a liaison there?

Cindy Moussavou: We started our school partnership work back in 2020 and we were able to secure some funds to start working as housing counselors in partnership with the Center for Families in Transition with Richmond Public Schools.

It was incredible to see that the families needing to move out of doubled-up situations or hotel situations where they were hemorrhaging funds just to stay put where they were; they just needed access to the housing market.

Nowadays, the average cost to move into housing is somewhere between $4,500 and $5,000. If you're paying weekly or you're doubled up, and you're overcapacity with family and friends, the Department of Education would say that's considered homeless. Whereas our other programs work under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for its definition of homelessness.

Why do you think that homelessness is on the rise?

CM: There's not enough housing. What we're seeing with debt, you know, the pandemic, there were a lot of programs assisting with rent, and everyone's like, "There were all these programs assisting." But at the same time, the meter was running.

So, people's electricity, if they didn't have a payment, now they have those bills. Now they have the water bills. Now they have, you know, the arrears on the rental assistance. You cannot access something new with those things hanging over you.

How long does it take to find homes for people? And what does that involve?

BVT: We work with families that are actively seeking housing, in a 30- to 60-day timeframe. We know that most families are in crisis,so the faster we can maneuver the market, the better. If they have any experience in the justice system, potentially, or if they have any debt, we help unpack all that with families.

We work to present landlords with all their assets so that they can be considered as tenants. As we've all seen housing costs skyrocket, we've been chasing the affordability more so than we ever have. And I've been doing this in Richmond for almost 10 years.

How do we curtail that and bring rent down where it's reasonable for the landlord, but also reasonable for the person looking for a home?

CM: That's such a big system issue. The way that we're having to tackle it is case by case.What we've had to do is say, "OK, the market is competitive, the landlord has the option of all these different applicants, why should they work with our applicants?"

We're out there building these relationships. It's really about coming in and saying, "how can we mitigate the risk for you economically? Is that paying an incentive out of pocket? Is it offering additional financial assistance?"

Some of the things that we do is put down that $5,000 that I was telling you about. That's the first month's rent. Sometimes it's the last month's rent, so that there's some life on the lease. Even if a landlord says no, I can guarantee most of the time there's a condition [and] we could meet that condition. Would you turn that no into a yes?


VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.