Arlington considers removing immigration status requirements for low-income housing grants

Nady Peralta, an attorney from the Legal Aid Justice Center (via Arlington County/YouTube)

Undocumented low-income residents might someday become eligible for housing grants in Arlington.

The county is “almost done” reevaluating immigration status requirements for its Housing Grants Program, Arlington County Board Vice-Chair Takis Karantonis said at a Board meeting late last month.

“Stay tuned,” Karantonis told Nady Peralta, an attorney from the Legal Aid Justice Center, who advocated for the change. “This is coming very soon, and I believe that you will like what you will hear.”

Until recently, Arlington maintained that it legally could not offer housing subsidies to undocumented applicants under Virginia law. However, according to a county study published last month, county staff reversed their position following a letter from the Legal Aid Justice Center outlining ways this could, in fact, be legally possible.

“The County Attorney’s Office… determined that there is a viable legal argument for Arlington County to be able to provide Housing Grants to undocumented households,” the study says. “This marks a significant change in the program and is currently still under review for a final decision to be made by the County Manager and County Board.”

The county did not provide an estimate of how many fully undocumented households would become eligible for support under revised requirements but the study noted that an extra 50 households would cost around $421,800 each year.

The change would also increase subsidies to homes with mixed immigration status. As of last month, 54 such households received grants and altered documentation requirements could increase additional yearly housing subsidies by a total of $143,920.

Not everyone supports this proposal. Fewer than half of respondents to a telephone survey (40%) agreed with lifting documentation restrictions, according to the county study.

Peralta, by contrast, argued that restricting housing-grant access tends to force undocumented and “under-documented” families out of Arlington as rents increase.

“Housing subsidies directly reduce housing cost burden and help people stay in their homes, neighborhoods and communities,” she said. “These subsidies are key to preventing displacement as more long-term housing supply is built.”

Peralta told ARLnow that undocumented households are “particularly disadvantaged by the cost of living in Arlington, even as compared to non-immigrant low-income families.”

“Whether by eviction or self-eviction, families are affected by losing the connections they have built to neighbors, school, work, and local programs,” the attorney said. “In each case, a housing subsidy without immigration or work requirements would have made a substantial difference in preventing displacement of families on an individual level, and protecting Arlington’s immigrant communities on a collective level.”

Regardless of whether the proposed change moves forward, the county is already on track to expand the Housing Grants Program this year. The number of households served by the $15.1 million program is expected to increase by 5% in the upcoming fiscal year — from 1,478 to 1,551, according to the proposed county budget.

One change contributing to that increase is a plan to loosen restrictions to allow housing aid for low-income youth aging out of foster care. This proposed shift, which received “strong support” from 87% of survey respondents, is expected to affect about 12 youth per year.

An estimated 20% of youth in the foster care system become homeless as soon as they become emancipated at age 18, according to the National Foster Youth Institute.

The number of people who receive Arlington housing grants has risen by over 200 families since March 2020, per the study. More than 85% of grant recipients earn less than 30% of the area’s median income.

Only Chicago and Portland, Oregon, are listed as having initiatives similar to Arlington’s, according to the study, and neither has citizenship status requirements.

Beyond changing documentation requirements, the study recommends several other expansions to the Housing Grants Program, including:

  • Reducing rent responsibility for grant recipients from 40% of their household income to 35%
  • Covering a portion of their utility bills
  • Removing a rule that requires recipients to receive treatment from the county if they have diagnosed substance addictions or serious mental health issues
  • Raising the limit on recipients’ maximum earnings to 50% of the area’s median income

If the county were to adopt all suggestions outlined in the study, the program would need more than $9 million in additional funding.

Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz’s proposed $1.62 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2025, unveiled late last month, includes $110 million for housing programs. This includes $26.6 million for housing choice vouchers, $20.5 million for the Affordable Housing Investment Fund and $17 million to pay off part of the county’s Barcroft Apartments debt.

In the same County Board meeting, Member Matt de Ferranti noted that resources are finite as the county endeavors to support its more than 24,000 residents who live on less than $45,600 per year.

“That is the competing… imperfectness of our world that we’re trying to fix,” he said.

A breakdown of Arlington’s proposed FY 2025 spending on housing programs (via Arlington County)