When the Partnership for Housing Affordability (PHA) launched the Richmond Regional Housing Framework in January 2020, the last thing the document was intended to be was a plan sitting on a shelf. It had to be a vision put into action.
In April 2018, Richmond received national attention in The New York Times over its housing struggles. Research from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University found a disturbing local trend: In 2016, 1 in 9 renter households were issued eviction judgments. The first reaction from local leaders and philanthropic partners rightly was: What can we do?
Behind every housing data point are real people in crisis, and there are a host of challenges in addition to evictions. Over 20 months of development and nearly 2,000 conversations with community members, the PHA acquired a strong sense of the needs that shape the framework, from rising rents leaving households in a cost-burdened state, to seniors with fixed incomes and too few living options.
What no one could have known was that by March 2020, a pandemic would hit — and the list of Virginians in need of a helping hand would swell by thousands. But the framework was prepared to adapt, starting with deploying a centralized way to connect people to organizations and services. The Housing Resource Line (HRL) is fostering stability in a time of great need.
Launched on Sept. 1, the HRL is one of the first completed solutions among 60 put forth by the regional housing framework. Open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., the hotline is staffed with specialists who conduct a short intake of questions to best assess how to help callers. A Spanish-speaking staffer also is available on Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., and there is an online form option as well.
The HRL operates like an air traffic controller for housing issues. It does not directly provide assistance but it does point central Virginians in the right direction. Residents from the nine localities in the PlanRVA regional area — the town of Ashland, the city of Richmond, and the counties of Charles City, Chesterfield, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, New Kent and Powhatan — are eligible to call.
Data provided by the PHA shows that in roughly nine months’ time, the HRL is filling a void. The hotline has fielded nearly 4,700 calls, connecting more than 150 households to nearly $500,000 in financial assistance for issues including rent, utilities and more.
But the aid extends far beyond money. “Rental options” was the No. 1 service needed (37%), with many people just seeking safe, affordable rooms in the area.
Another 5% of calls were for “legal support.” One possible scenario is a tenant trying to understand the ramifications of a pay-or-quit notice — the time when a landlord gives a five-day deadline to either fulfill rent or move, VALegalAid.org explains. If payment is not made in that time frame, the landlord can start an eviction in court.
No matter what the need might be, HRL specialists can step in with expertise on the individual’s place in a housing issue, the range of organizations that serve the community, the eligibility requirements for any resources, the status of available aid programs and more guidance.
Perhaps most importantly, the HRL is a mutually beneficial tool for residents and policymakers. The conversations not only inform Virginians about how to get help, but they take stress off of direct service providers, while supplying real-time data for housing leaders to keep pace with critical trends.
When HRL specialists conduct the intake process, the PHA is able to compile basic demographic information that can complement census figures, such as age, gender, income, race and ethnicity, and education. Through May 20, help was provided to a range of age groups: 55 to 64 (21.6%) and 25 to 34 (21.2%) were most common. But two clear trends emerged in the final two categories: 62% of callers identified as Black/African American; 56% had an education level of high school diploma (38.6%) or incomplete K-12 (17.5%).
ZIP codes also help the PHA and its partners drill down by community to learn where housing needs might be most concentrated. Through May 20, the most frequent ones of HRL callers were: Richmond (23222, 23223 and 23224), Chesterfield (23234, 23235 and 23831), Hanover/Ashland (23005, 23111 and 23116) and Henrico (23227, 23231 and 23294).
Finally, the hotline is an apparatus to unearth surprising and/or concerning trends that can better inform our region’s housing strategy. Two notable examples: 60% of callers reported a disability or a chronic health issue, while half said their housing needs had been affected by COVID-19.
The pandemic has been a period of loss and grief for so many Virginians, and isolation only magnifies the detrimental effects of the public health crisis. The Housing Resource Line is a model of how to do the opposite: deliver individualized support that helps foster stability in a time of great need.