Housing Assistance Program slow to give tenants aid

Monitor staff
Published: 8/2/2020 5:14:09 PM

As New Hampshire housing advocates fret over a potential flood of evictions next month, a key state aid program for tenants has been slow to roll out.

New Hampshire’s Housing Relief Program, launched June 30, is a $35 million program meant to help assist tenants who are no longer protected by an eviction moratorium as of July 1.

But four weeks on, the program is still working its way through hundreds of applications and relatively few awards.

As of July 30, 1,385 people had submitted applications for housing relief and 139 applications had been approved, according to numbers from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Of the $35 million set aside in the program, $20 million of which was for immediate use, only $493,304 has been distributed so far, DHHS says.

And interest in the program is even greater than applications. Across New Hampshire, 4,701 people have “inquired” into the housing program, and 4,523 have been sent an application as of July 30.

The timing is important. As tenants enter a critical week when both unemployment insurance and eviction protections are set to expire, some housing experts are worried the state relief will come too late.

“The problem is that there are so many applicants for the housing relief fund that it’s very unlikely that many people who are eligible will actually be approved prior to the expiration of the 30 days, at which point the eviction can go forward,” said Elliott Berry, an attorney and director of the Housing Project at New Hampshire Legal Assistance.

State officials, meanwhile, say the application process is complicated and the agencies administering the aid are finally hitting a stride.

The dilemma stems in part back to the expiration of the statewide moratorium on evictions at the beginning of July. That moratorium, first enacted at the start of the pandemic in March, shielded tenants from eviction due to nonpayment of rent as the national economy plummeted and layoffs abounded.

But that moratorium ended July 1, and Gov. Chris Sununu declined to extend it, arguing that doing so would hurt landlords and that tenants who owed back rent had safeguards to help them pay back that debt and avoid eviction.

Instead, the governor expanded the delay period before an eviction order can be served on a tenant. Where usually it is seven days after an initial warning, it now is 30. For eviction warnings served at the beginning of the month, that 30 days is now up.

Sununu also created a housing relief fund that would allow tenants with rent due during the pandemic to apply to receive up to $2,500 to help pay it off.

But the relief program relied on the existing Community Action Program – a network of five agencies across the state that help distribute funds for housing, child care, fuel assistance and other efforts in non-pandemic times. Due to the surge in applications and interest, those agencies have been swamped, Berry says.

“The major hold up is the CAPs have been really understaffed to deal with so many applications. That is the big problem.”

A second problem: The process itself. In order to successfully apply, tenants are asked for a range of documents, which can include their income documentation on pay stubs, a copy of their rental/eviction notice, their lease agreement, their food stamps, their utility bills, and proof of a loss of unemployment. It’s a lot to organize, and can slow the process down between the agencies and the applicants.

“It’s a real problem, and it’s certainly not one of the tenants’ making, and I don’t think the governor anticipated this when he issued his last executive order,” Berry said.

Efforts to reach the Concord Community Action Program by phone were not successful.

Though the state protections have expired, it is unlikely that many tenants will be immediately evicted. After the new 30-day period ends for the tenant to pay back the rent after being warned by the landlord, the landlord still has to go to court and obtain an eviction writ. The tenant then has seven days to respond and choose to challenge it in court, at which point a date has to be set by the court for a hearing.

In all, the process could take an additional few weeks, which could be enough time for the tenant to receive the housing assistance from the state and pay off the overdue rent.

Still, Berry and others at NHLA say that even if that assistance is pending, judges don’t have a strong tool to halt the eviction if it doesn’t arrive in time.

Berry argues that absent a return of the eviction moratorium, which he supports, the governor should consider an executive order giving courts the ability to stay evictions if aid is on the way.

“I think it would be worth the governor taking another look at enacting or promulgating another executive order in the short term just to make sure people do have the time to go through the process of applying for this vital resource,” Berry said.

At a press conference Thursday, Sununu dismissed the potential for widespread evictions in August.

“That’s why I created a $35 million fund for folks to help pay their rent and pay their utilities,” he said. “That’s exactly what this CAP program fund is all about and it’s doing great.”

Asked about the specific worries of New Hampshire Legal Assistance over the pace of distributions, Sununu said the state would work with the CAP agencies “very directly, one on one.”

“We’re happy to address those issues if they come up,” he said, adding that the concern had not been brought to his office.

What likely isn’t on the table is a revival of the eviction moratorium, Sununu said. But he said he was open to finding efficiencies.

“I’m always for streamlining a process in applications,” he said. “This money is not designed to be held by the state. We gotta get it out, for sure.”

Are you in need of rental or mortgage assistance? Go to www.capnh.org to learn more and apply.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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