Albemarle County will allocate another $1.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to go toward an application to help make broadband available to underserved community members in the county.
Overall, the county is directly receiving $21.2 million in federal ARPA funds, and previously earmarked about $7 million in funding to specific topics, with the rest to be utilized around the county’s budget, capital budget and fiscal planning processes.
The Board of Supervisors also previously allocated $3 million from ARPA funds towards broadband, but was told Wednesday that a Firefly Fiber broadband project proposal would need an additional $1.5 million in matching money for a state grant application.
Firefly plans to submit an application to the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative this year for a broadband project that would work with electric utilities in the region to provide service to residents who have download speeds under 25 megabits per second and upload speeds under 3 megabits per second.
“This was due to Firefly doing some field work and going out and identifying [their actual costs] and then coming back to us after knowledge of the additional funding and saying, ‘This is what we’ll need to be truly competitive during this VATI grant,’” said Mike Culp, director of the county’s Broadband Accessibility and Affordability Office.
Kimberly Gardner, the county’s grant leader in the Office of Management and Budget, said county staff wanted to be ready for that application.
“Originally, the $3 million looked like it was going to be the right number, but as we’re getting closer to the application, $4.5 million would be a better match for us to be more competitive,” she said.
Despite funding asks from area groups such as the Charlottesville chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, no county ARPA money has been allocated to a right-to-counsel program for county residents facing eviction.
County CFO Nelsie Birch said in an email that Albemarle will be evaluating all of the available funding and data surrounding eviction prevention programming.
In June, the board approved a spending framework that included an allocation of $4 million for human services and economic activity/business support. County staff said $800,000 of that has been allocated for emergency assistance to provide support for both rent and mortgage payments, as well as utilities, such as gas, electric and water. Gardner said that is an extension of a local United Way program that previously was funded with other federal money.
To learn more and request assistance, county residents experiencing lost wages or earning ability as a result of reduced hours or loss of employment due to the pandemic can call the emergency fund hotline voicemail box in English at (434) 326-0950 or in Spanish at (434) 373-0930 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The county said calls to the hotline will be returned within two to three weeks due to high call volume. Operators will only call twice.
Albemarle falls under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s current eviction moratorium, which will protect most renters until at least Oct. 3
During public comment at Wednesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, six county residents encouraged the board to use ARPA funds to support a right-to-counsel program for those facing eviction.
In July, Charlottesville’s City Council appropriated $300,000 from its ARPA funds for an eviction prevention program in partnership with the Legal Aid Justice Center. LAJC staff have said the funding will not be enough to guarantee an attorney for everyone at risk of losing their home.
Albemarle resident Javier Raudale said he speaks with members of the Latinx community who face “a legal system that is unfamiliar and set against them,” and said that the right to counsel for these community members should be complementary to rent relief efforts.
“I speak with community members in my personal life who are unfamiliar with the frightening court system,” he said. “When the court system is unfamiliar, it is intimidating. Right to counsel will ensure that all members of our community have equal footing with landlords who often and almost always have an attorney.”
Cville Democratic Socialists of America sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors on Aug. 3 asking the county to allocate $600,000 for a similar program to the city’s.
“Providing funding for lawyers to help tenants is helping them directly,” said Lydia Brunk, with Cville DSA. “They cannot and should not be in opposition to each other, taken as one or the other. They should both be part of our necessary efforts to help folks stay off the streets and have a roof over their heads.”
In an email to the Board of Supervisors earlier this month, Albemarle staff said the county is a member of a working group studying eviction and eviction prevention needs in the Charlottesville area, and eviction data collection is part of that effort.
The county’s previous emergency financial assistance program, which ran from June 2020 through June 2021, provided direct funding to support rent and mortgage payments to 2,653 residents. Approximately $2 million of federal CARES Coronavirus Relief Funds were distributed, primarily for rent and mortgage payments, the county said.
Gardner noted in her presentation that the state has allocated $2.5 million to the Virginia State Bar for legal representation in eviction cases, but she did not yet know how that funding would be utilized.
Supervisor Donna Price said she wants to ensure that the county has “equitable concern for both the tenants, as well as individual landlords.”
“I think it’s important that we recognize that not only do we have tenants who may be suffering, but we also have individuals who own a home that they’re renting, and they face comparable consequences,” she said.
Price also asked if the county had received any requests from the entities that provide representation to tenants.
“Before making a decision whether we wanted to send some money towards legal representation, I think it’s important to know, are we receiving [requests] from those entities, for example Legal Aid Justice Center, that are providing representation?” she said. “Because if they do not necessarily need the funds, then I believe that there are better ways that we might be able to use those funds to help both tenants and landlords,” she said.
Charlottesville City Manager Chip Boyles previously said he had started conversations with the county about partnering on the eviction prevention program in the city.
In an interview, Brenda Castaneda, legal director of LAJC’s Economic Justice Program, said the center sent an inquiry to the county about the program but hasn’t heard back and hasn’t had any conversations with Albemarle officials.
“It makes sense for the county and the city to work together to fund this program because of the way that people move back and forth across the geographical line, and also the way that they may access resources in either location,” she said.
An eviction prevention program works best in conjunction with other initiatives, Castaneda said, such as by increasing the amount of affordable housing, access to housing and access to other relief funds.
“That is great if you have the funds, but if people can’t access them, then it doesn’t achieve the purpose,” she said. “You not only need to fund the programs, but you need to fund assistance to access those programs — they’re not self-executing. You have to go put these applications in, and provide information and maybe your landlord doesn’t cooperate, so we see them as complementary.”