Sununu sets up rent assistance program but lifts cap on evictions

Monitor staff
Published: 7/2/2020 3:57:54 PM
Modified: 7/2/2020 3:57:44 PM

Gov. Chris Sununu unveiled a new Housing Relief Program to give short-term assistance to those struggling with rent, touting it as a means to provide an “off ramp” for those who have fallen behind on rent.

The $35 million, federally funded program kicked off a day before the state’s evictions moratorium expired. Starting July 1, tenants who fail to pay rent can again have eviction notices served against them – a first since March, when the moratorium was enacted.

But one housing expert says the new relief funds, which are capped at $2,500 a family, may not be enough to stave off an expected wave of evictions this summer, as struggling landlords and tenants grapple with a reduction in state and federal assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By comparison, a two-bedroom apartment in the state averages $1,300 a month, according to the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority – and family-sized apartments are pricier.

And the $35 million program could run out of money quickly, given widespread unemployment and an inability or many Granite Staters to presently pay rent.

That’s according to Elliot Berry, an attorney and Housing Project Director at New Hampshire Legal Assistance, which assists tenants in eviction disputes.

“I think there are a significant number of people who will not be able to cure their arrearage with the $2,500 payment, the maximum under the program,” Berry said, referring to the process of settling overdue rent payments.

“There are a lot of people and especially renters with larger families that are not going to be able to cure that arrearage.”

The concerns come at the start of a sensitive month for New Hampshire’s rental market. On July 31, a $600 federal weekly supplement to unemployment insurance will expire, likely pushing many low income unemployed into other assistance programs. And the removal of rent protections could trigger a “flood” of evictions, advocates have warned. To Sununu, the eviction wave concerns are misplaced.

“It could happen of course, but we don’t anticipate a large amount of people being evicted or foreclosed on,” he said at a June 25 press conference.

With assistance, he added, fewer people will lose housing than advocates predict.

The governor argued last week that the moratorium on evictions had to be lifted at some point, pointing to landlords who are struggling with their own bills and maintenance costs.

Originally, the rent moratorium was supposed to last as long as the state’s COVID-19 emergency declaration did. But on June 11, upon renewing that declaration, Sununu announced that a new July 1 end-date had been announced.

And Sununu said the new assistance program would help ease what could have been an abrupt transition period for tenants struggling to pay rent.

“What we want to do is make sure we’re providing an off-ramp,” Sununu said Tuesday. “We don’t just want things to just come to an abrupt end. We understand that families may have the needs for a little more time to work out either payment plans or structures. Understanding what other programs might be out there to help them make rent or make utility payments, whatever it might be.”

The new assistance program uses federal funds to allow households to apply for up to $2,500 in housing assistance, some of which can go to help assist with back rent and also ongoing rental payments through to the end of the year. The fund is also available for mortgage payments.

That money will be distributed through the state’s five Community Action Program agencies. But all assistance must cease by the end of 2020, following rules attached to the federal money, provided under the CARES Act.

The program is live as of Tuesday, according to Sununu. Those who are interested in applying can call 211 or go to capnh.org.

But Berry said he worries that the funds will only delay evictions, and in some cases won’t help at all.

Under New Hampshire law in non-pandemic times, a landlord may send an eviction notice to a tenant the day after rent was supposed to be due. That notice contains a seven-day time limit; after that, the landlord can file a summons in court. The tenant can contest that summons without incurring court fees. That appeal process can take several weeks.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, tenants in New Hampshire have slightly more time to pay back that rent before the landlord can go to the court. For any rent that was due during the period of the order – up until June 11 – tenants have 30 days to pay it back before the eviction can go through.

That means that even though the evictions process resumed July 1, many tenants that are behind on rent will have a full 30 days to catch up. In that period, they could apply to the new Housing Relief Fund, Berry noted.

Meanwhile, tenants who are the recipients of Section 8 housing vouchers or who live in housing complexes whose landlords receive federally backed mortgages have longer rent moratorium – either July 25 or Aug 11, depending on the size of the development.

Still, Berry said, the economic crisis in New Hampshire and other states was likely to accelerate the evictions process, even with assistance.

And he pointed to a bill heading to Sununu’s desk that he said could help tenants further.

House Bill 1247 would require landlords to set up a six-month payment plan for back-payment of rent before they could take actions in the eviction process. Under the proposed bill, which passed the House and Senate this week, landlords would be required to offer a payment plan for all back rent as long as least some of it fell during the COVID-19 emergency period.

But if tenants did not immediately agree to the proposed payment plan, or did not keep up with it, the eviction could be served before the end of the six month period, Berry said.

“It’s another win-win situation,” Berry said. ” Either the tenant agrees to it and complies and the landlord gets his money over a six month period, or the tenant doesn’t agree, and the eviction proceeds.”

But Sununu has expressed skepticism at that legislative approach. Speaking at a June 25 press conference, the governor said he worried of negative effects for property owners.

“Someone has to pay,” Sununu said. “Those landlords still have to pay their mortgages, right? So I understand it’s creating more opportunity for the tenants to stay longer. But you’re creating a massive cash problem for the landlords.”




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