Vanessa Velez has a good relationship with her landlord, and part of the reason is because she always paid the rent at her Centerville residence on time.
But that mutual goodwill might have taken a hit when Velez, the mother of five, quit her job as a psychiatric aide last year over fears of exposure to COVID-19, worries she might contract the virus and pass it to her youngest child, and the frustration and delays she encountered when applying for unemployment benefits.
“I couldn’t just walk in there and explain my situation,” she said of state offices which closed during the pandemic. “And I couldn’t get anyone on the phone,” as the system was overwhelmed, clogging online servers and forcing a backlog from the flood of requests.
She worried not only about how she would make rent, but also about what might happen to her, her partner and her children, now down to one income. Eviction, she knew, would affect her credit, and haunt her for years, derailing her dream of owning a home. She tried to find other, safer employment but it took time.
Velez, though, applied for rental assistance through a Camden County program that used state and federal CARES Act funding to keep her and her family housed, to keep her landlord paid, and to keep her from incurring long-term debt and credit problems.
On Thursday, county and city officials gathered downtown to announce an additional $15 million to help people like Velez remain in their homes, and to keep their landlords, often with their own debts and expenses, paid.
A website, www.camdenrentgrant.com, has been set up or residents may call 856-389-6704 to begin the process of applying for this second round of aid. Assistance goes directly to landlords, and is available on a first-come, first-served basis.
The money will help renters who are as much as 12 months behind on rent and utilities to stay in their homes, said Camden County Commissioner Al Dyer, and includes assistance for internet access — vital for those who have students at home learning remotely, or those who have or are seeking work-from-home employment,
“I’m a product of this city,” said Dyer. “My family was evicted six or seven times… Sometimes people just need a little more time, and this gives them a little more time.”
Camden Mayor Vic Carstarphen called the funding “a lifeline for our community,” noting the disproportionate impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on urban areas and communities of color, like Camden, where more residents work in front-line and essential jobs, or in healthcare, or live in multigenerational households.
Ray Lamboy, chief executive officer of the Latin American Economic Development Association (LAEDA), noted there are currently 4,000 evictions pending on Camden County court dockets, while Councilman Angel Fuentes called the crisis “a legitimate need” for families undergoing financial crises as a result of the “chaos and confusion” caused by the pandemic and its economic fallout.
Nichelle Pace of the Camden Business Association added that Camden is in the midst of “a recovery on top of a recovery”: Long plagued by poverty, unemployment and blight, Camden has seen an infusion of economic development through state tax incentives and corporate expansions, but the pandemic may have stalled some of that progress,
“This is only one of many things the city needs to raise all boats,” she said.
For Velez, who now works as a bilingual clerk for Camden County and has been helping with vaccination efforts, the assistance buoyed her family, and the lifelong Camden resident said that while she’s heard for years about grants, aid and assistance to help working families, “This is something we can actually feel.”
She didn’t want to stay unemployed, she said, and her children ages 18 to 2 all have their mother’s sense of independence, an example she wanted to continue to set for them.
Now she’ll get to set it in a new place: Worried last year about eviction and ruined credit, she’s about to buy her first home.