After receiving about $3.5 million from the federal government as part of the CARES Act, Manassas is offering some financial relief to individuals affected by the coronavirus-related economic downturn.
The city’s Department of Social Services has begun accepting applications for its new rental and utility assistance program, which offers up to $1,000 a month for two months to residents who can show that they’ve been affected by the shutdown in March and April or by the subsequent economic downturn.
City Council has allotted $250,000 of CARES Act money to be paid directly to utility companies, landlords and mortgage companies on behalf of struggling tenants. As of Monday, the city had received 29 applications, which are available in both English and Spanish. The social services department says it will be able to help up to 200 families, and if the need is high enough, may return to council for another $250,000.
“Manassas City Department of Social Services is prioritizing assistance to families and individuals who have lost their primary/sole income, have an increased financial burden, and can demonstrate the greatest need as a result of COVID-19,” the application reads. “... Funds are limited and will be distributed on a first come, first served basis for immediate need.”
Social Services Director Michele Gehr said in an email that even with enhanced unemployment insurance (set to expire at the end of July if Congress fails to renew funding), many families are struggling to stay up to date on rent and utility payments as a result of reduced hours. And on Monday, Gov. Ralph Northam’s statewide moratorium on evictions ended, leaving residents vulnerable to eviction proceedings.
“When COVID hit, many businesses furloughed employees or reduced hours making it impossible for families to meet their monthly obligations,” Gehr told InsideNoVa. “These are people who have already been struggling financially with full-time employment. They would certainly be eligible for rental/mortgage assistance.”
Even if someone who is out of work ultimately is approved for unemployment benefits, Gehr said, there can be a delay in the state actually getting money into their hands. Not only that, many previously self-employed people who may be ineligible for benefits have lost their income.
Gehr also said that the city is seeing people who’ve never sought public assistance turn to the government for help. Nationwide, cases of coronavirus have been surging, but Northern Virginia’s rolling seven-day average of new cases is at its lowest since April, and the state moved into Phase Three of its reopening plan on Wednesday. In turn, more people will be able to return to work, but Gehr says there will still be a lot of economic pain in the city.
“People might be surprised to know that a majority of people who normally qualify for benefits are employed in low-wage jobs and just can’t quite make ends meet,” she said. “We are now seeing dual-wage households who have been reduced to single-wage households and are falling behind on their mortgage payments. …. The farther behind you fall, the more difficult it is to catch up. No one should lose their home as a result of a pandemic and we are trying to prevent that.”
Last week, the Virginia Employment Commission reported 5,279 new unemployment claims in Northern Virginia, marking the 11th straight week of declining claims since early April. Still, that number is 10 times higher than pre-pandemic claims, and the total number of first-time claims in Northern Virginia is nearly 250,000 since March 15.
Manassas Councilperson Michelle Davis-Younger, who serves as liaison to the Social Services Advisory Board, said she was happy that after already offering up to $400,000 in assistance to local businesses, the council was making help available for some individuals as well.
“Everyone is suffering from the COVID and the loss of unemployment and income, and we have been given this money and I’m just very glad that we’re able to help so many people in their time of need,” Davis-Younger said. “Nobody wants to be worried about ‘Am I going to lose my home.’”