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Housing relief program grinds to halt without funding

Monitor staff
Published: 1/29/2021 4:39:06 PM

Seven months after its creation, a New Hampshire program to assist renters and homeowners is frozen, with no applications being accepted since Dec. 18.

Instead, the New Hampshire Housing Relief Fund is sitting in limbo. The state’s assistance agencies are unable to distribute aid even as New Hampshire awaits $200 million in additional funding for housing, passed as part of an end-of-year coronavirus relief package in Congress.

The situation is causing worry for at least one state official.

“The timing of the housing relief program ending and the start of the new funding has been a concern for a lot of people,” said Melissa Hatfield, chief of the state’s Bureau of Homeless and Housing Services, on a conference call with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen earlier this month. “I’m fielding emails about that around the clock. It was a decision that was made at some other level.”

The predicament is a result of both a federal funding deadline and decisions by state officials. The Housing Relief Fund was set up to provide a salve to a growing problem: mounting eviction attempts and piling back rent. As a statewide moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent expired in June, Gov. Chris Sununu unveiled the fund as an “offramp” to allow tenants to stay current with their rent and keep their landlords paid.

The $20 million fund – with an extra $15 million in reserves – was meant to help tenants and homeowners who were struggling due to COVID-19.

But the money was funded by the CARES Act, a March federal coronavirus relief bill that directed billions of dollars to states, and it included a significant caveat: All of the money had to be spent by Dec. 30. Any unspent funds at that time would default back to the U.S. Treasury.

In early December, facing the pressure of that deadline, legislators on the advisory panel of the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery (GOFERR) voted to recommend taking unspent funds from COVID-19 programs and moving them into the state’s unemployment trust fund instead.

That meant that the office had to impose a freeze on the housing aid, and a cut-off for new applicants – Dec. 18.

Then, after a chaotic several weeks in December, Congress stepped in to help near last minute. The end-of-year spending package – passed Dec. 27 – included language that extended the deadline for states’ use of the CARES act funds beyond Dec. 30. Technically, New Hampshire’s housing funding could have continued into January.

Shaheen, speaking earlier this month, castigated the Sununu administration for not taking advantage of that extension.

Hatfield, herself a member of Sununu’s administration, said that she had pushed for those in charge to keep the housing funding going.

“It was recouped by the GOFERR office and they did something else with it,” Hatfield said on the conference call. “I was not part of the planning for what they did with the rest of the money. We pushed really hard to keep it, but they took it back.”

The top state official in charge of distributing the relief and recovery funds has pushed back at that criticism. Department of Business and Economic Affairs Commissioner Taylor Caswell, executive director of GOFERR, said that the office was facing an end-of-year deadline with no indications that a deeply divided Congress was going to extend that deadline in time.

“Like all other GOFERR programs, the Housing Relief Fund was developed to comply with the requirements set out in the CARES Act and subsequent U.S. Treasury guidance. This included developing a timeline based on the December 30, 2020 deadline,” Caswell said in a statement to the Monitor. “Any funds not expended would have to be returned to the federal government. GOFERR could not base its decisions on how to effectively and efficiently allocate hundreds of millions of dollars on the possibility that the federal deadline would be extended at the midnight hour.”

For now, the five Community Action Programs – the nonprofit agencies in charge of distributing the housing relief – are unable to help new applicants.

“Everybody that applied as of December 18, our expectation is the applications will be finalized and they will receive assistance. But it was shut down at that date,” said John Manning, the CEO of Southwestern Community Services, which distributes the housing aid in the Cheshire County area.

“We are waiting to go forward with the new program, whenever the state works it out,” Manning added.

The new aid package puts aside an estimated $200 million for New Hampshire, a massive increase from the state’s fund last year. But Caswell says that it’s still unclear when the money will arrive, let alone how it can be used when it gets to New Hampshire.

“The state is taking steps to create a new housing relief program that aligns with this new emergency rental relief funding,” Caswell said on Jan. 20. “As of today, we are still waiting for U.S. Treasury guidance on how the emergency rental relief dollars may be used.”

Meanwhile, New Hampshire’s Housing Relief Fund has faced internal problems that have hampered the distribution of the money. When the program was first set up, housing advocates complained that it included a convoluted process for tenants to apply, one that required a number of documents that made obtaining the funding difficult.

Sununu later revised the application requirements to simplify them. But heads of the relief agencies said that wasn’t enough.

“There’s a lot of frustration on the part of the CAPs because due to the way the program was set up, it was difficult at times to get that money out as quickly as we want,” Manning said.

That process may be one reason the $35 million housing program struggled so much to use up its funds. While other New Hampshire COVID-19 programs like the Main Street Relief Fund were able to pass out hundreds of millions of dollars in a matter of weeks, the Housing Relief Fund had only distributed about $13 million of its $35 million, Caswell said.

That number represents 4,600 households in total.

“The CAP agencies will continue to submit invoices through January 31st, so GOFERR will not have final numbers until that process has been complete,” Caswell said. He promised that all applications received before Dec. 18 would be honored with funding.

For now, Hatfield said, the state is looking ahead to the next rush of funding, and preparing.

“We’re just doing what we can to get the new money up and running,” she said. “And tapping into some of our existing funds to fill some of those gaps in the meantime. So we are watching this very closely and doing what we can to make sure we’re meeting the needs of the folks out there.”

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

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