CASEY: Where are the residents of English Gardens in Roanoke moving to? | Local News

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The phone call last Friday night was heartbreaking because the person on the other end of the line was sobbing so hard.

Her name is Nell Fleming. She is 63, disabled, and a tenant at English Gardens along Memorial Avenue in the Virginia Heights neighborhood of southwest Roanoke.

In 2011, Fleming contacted yours truly on behalf of a WWII veteran. He was a friend’s father, who should have received a Bronze Star decades ago, reflecting his service in Italy during World War II. Ultimately, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Virginia, helped correct that oversight.

Now Fleming is asking for help for herself and other English Gardens tenants. The venerable 100-unit apartment complex, built during the post-war housing boom of the late 1940s, sold to a new owner earlier this year. The new owner intends to renovate, which is not unreasonable given that the apartments are 75 years old.

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The new landlords want existing tenants out by the end of June. Most are on monthly terms, which means there is nothing contractually protecting tenants. Fleming said she has lived there since 2011. Her current rent is $510, although the apartment complex has waived tenant rent payments for April.

His main question is where will the residents of English Gardens go now that everyone has to move. There seem to be few valuable answers. And that left people in Fleming’s position desperate. That’s why she was so emotional on the phone.

“You have over 200 people vying for the same thing – a cheap apartment and one that includes utilities,” Fleming told me. “I called dozens of places. They have no vacancies. Why can’t they wait a year, until we recover from COVID? »

In trying to determine if any government agency or entity is helping English Gardens residents find alternative housing, I contacted a group. As far as I know, no one has organized themselves specifically to help the residents of the complex.

On the other hand, a number of government agencies, private non-profit organizations and landlords are being bombarded with calls from English Gardens residents.

At one of the complexes – Ferncliff Apartments North in northwest Roanoke, the waiting list for a subsidized bedroom is 10 to 12, rental consultant Caitlin Craft said. The wait for a two-bedroom apartment is at least a year; for three bedrooms, the wait is two years or more.

“It could take months, it could take years,” said Whitney Smith, rental coordinator at Elm Manor, a subsidized apartment building in Roanoke’s Old Southwest neighborhood. Its waiting list currently has seven potential tenants.

“We have people applying all the time being added,” she said.

Edinburgh Square, a subsidized complex for disabled seniors in Roanoke County, is currently at capacity. Her waiting list is eight months to a year, said a woman who answered the phone but declined to give me her name.

Right now, the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority isn’t even accepting applications for Section 8 housing subsidies because “Section 8 is closed right now,” said housing authority assistant Leanna Pagans. . “I don’t know when it’s going to open.”

“Unfortunately, all of our housing opportunities are waitlist based and we cannot afford to provide emergency housing,” said Kaelyn Spickler, spokesperson for the housing authority.

The fact is that the affordable housing rental market is very distorted right now, in the Roanoke Valley and elsewhere.

Distorting factors include inflation and landlords’ desire for quite reasonable rents. Many of them are still recovering from a temporary eviction moratorium ordered by former Governor Ralph Northam at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the moratorium, many tenants failed to pay.

Fleming, who told me she had been working since she was 14, lost her job as an operating room technician at a local surgery center a few years ago after destroying her right knee in an abnormal work accident. She has since had knee replacement surgery. But that’s not his handicap.

In early 2020, shortly before COVID began to spread widely in the United States, Fleming contracted a mysterious respiratory illness which she believed was caused by the coronavirus. This left her with a low fever for over a month, along with other symptoms she is still experiencing.

Fleming said her doctor told her she contracted COVID just before the pandemic hit, before the disease was widely recognized. The issues she still suffers from include balance and something more general that she called “brain fog.” Neither is uncommon for people struggling with persistent symptoms, called “Long COVID.”

They made her unable to work, Fleming told me. Her disability and retirement income totals $1,100 a month, she said. Although she has two older sisters in this area, they cannot support her financially.

The local Office on Aging, Fleming added, sent him a list of apartment complexes that charge seniors 30% of their gross monthly income in rent.

“But no one has a vacancy. And no one can live on $1,100 a month except we could here because our heating was included, she said. “For the first time in my life, I am taking food stamps, and [that monthly benefit] was halved a few weeks ago.

By e-mail, I reached out to a member of the Roanoke City Council and an assistant city manager about the matter. I received no immediate response from either by the Wednesday deadline. I had more success contacting other agencies and some apartment complexes.

Most agencies are overwhelmed and the apartment complexes I spoke to are full, with no vacancies expected anytime soon. The only agency that offered Fleming some hope was Total Action for Progress.

Its president, Annette Lewis, said TAP’s inventory of available subsidized housing shows The Terraces apartments on Maiden Lane in southwest Roanoke had 43 vacant units at TAP’s last count. The Terraces phone number is (540) 343-9987.

Another agency was Roanoke Area Ministries, a non-profit organization that sponsors an emergency homeless shelter and financial assistance program to help others avoid becoming homeless. For eligible customers, RAM can help pay a portion of a new tenant’s first month’s rent and security deposit, and help with utility payments to avoid closings.

On March 22, RAM posted the following message in all caps and bold, on its website:

“Due to a recent extreme need for financial assistance, RAM House is changing its customer service hours from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. This is the only way to handle the extreme number of requests we are receiving.”

Melissa Woodson, Executive Director of RAM, told me that for every person her social workers are able to help, there are two to three additional people who seek help through RAM.

Since Dec. 1, she added, RAM has spent $117,500 on tenant financial assistance. This is well over a third of what he raised during the last Good Neighbors Fund campaign organized and promoted by this newspaper.

Most of those recipients are not necessarily from English Gardens, Woodson added. These residents are just beginning to contact RAM.

But the statistic shows how tight the rental market is right now for anyone at the lower end of the income scale. And that increases the housing problems faced by people like Fleming.

The housing shortage is getting worse, Woodson added.

“I think it’s going to turn out badly,” she said darkly. “I fear that the number of homeless people will increase even without the closure of this apartment complex.

“I don’t think a lot of middle-class people realize how hard it is for low-income people,” Woodson said.

Contact Subway Columnist Dan Casey at 981-3423 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter:@dancaseysblog.

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