Sununu vetoes eviction protection bill, paid family leave 

  • FILE - In this Feb. 10, 2020, file photo New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu speaks at a Cops for Trump rally in Portsmouth, N.H. Sununu said Wednesday, March 4 that New Hampshire will join 17 other states in defending the Affordable Care Act, as a case that is aimed at repealing the law goes before the U.S. Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File) Robert F. Bukaty

Monitor staff
Published: 7/10/2020 6:13:09 PM

Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed bills Friday that would have further protected renters from eviction, implemented a paid family leave plan and created a lower bar for people to vote by absentee ballot in the September primary and November general election.

The bill to give tenants additional protections against evictions would hurt landlords and potentially the housing market, Sununu said.

“We must remember that property owners have also struggled throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” Sununu said. “...They too have financial obligations that must be met, including mortgages, taxes and utilities.”

As part of the trio of vetoes Friday, Sununu struck down House Bill 1247. Designed by Democrats, the rental relief bill aimed to help stave off what housing advocates have called a potential “perfect storm” of evictions in New Hampshire this summer.

The bill would prevent landlords from evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent unless they first offered a six-month payment plan for all back rent.

For nearly four months during the start of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, New Hampshire tenants have been shielded from evictions under a moratorium put in place by an executive order from Sununu. But that moratorium ended July 1, plunging newly-unemployed tenants into what advocates say is an uncertain time.

The expiration of the $600-a-week federally-funded unemployment benefit expansion at the end of July is likely to exacerbate that situation, advocates have warned.

Under the bill, if tenants accepted the plan, the back rent would be tacked onto the tenant’s existing rent in installments over a minimum six month period. The eviction could proceed if the tenant did not accept the terms of the installment plan, or if the tenant failed to keep up month to month.

The bill would prevent the landlord from carrying out “possessory action” over the tenant, typically the last phase of an eviction process.

Democrats and housing advocates argued that the bill was necessary to give tenants who lost their jobs during the business shut down to get the chance to get back on track as the economy opens back up.

But in a lengthy veto message, Sununu argued that the requirement could make it harder for landlords to evict a tenant in order to meet their own bills. And he said it had the potential to reduce the state’s rental housing stock in turn.

“Denying property owners the opportunity to pay their bills is a recipe for them removing these rental units from the market, placing them up for sale in our robust real estate market and further exacerbating the shortage of rental units that already exists across New Hampshire,” Sununu said. “Not only would this reduce the housing supply, but it would also, in turn, drive up the cost of rent statewide.”

Rep. Casey Conley, a Dover Democrat who had sponsored the original language, slammed the veto, arguing it cut off a key tool amid a mounting housing problem.

“New Hampshire already had an affordable housing and homelessness crisis before the pandemic, which will make a difficult situation even worse,” Conley said. “Governor Sununu’s veto will lead to more evictions, more foreclosures and more homelessness in our state at a time when local welfare offices and social services agencies are already stretched thin.”

Sununu highlighted steps he had taken to address the potential rising tide of evictions over the summer.

Weeks ago, the governor created the state’s Housing Relief Program, funded with $35 million of the state’s $1.2 billion allotment of the CARES Act federal stimulus fund. That fund allows tenants and also homeowners to apply for up to $2,500 in assistance with mortgages, rent and utilities. But the fund has been criticized by some housing advocates as being insufficiently funded and constrained by a per-family cap that doesn’t reflect rent levels.

Lobbyists for the New Hampshire Banker’s Association and landlords opposed the Democrat-led bill.

Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, a Concord Democrat who is running for governor, said the governor’s housing relief program would only go so far.

“Creating a housing fund is fine, but a housing fund is not housing protection,” Feltes said. “Rather than allowing baseline housing protections to move forward, Governor Sununu once again sided with lobbyists and big banks over families trying to stay in their homes.”

The governor cited his early executive order setting in motion the evictions moratorium as evidence he wanted to protect vulnerable tenants.

And he noted that the state has changed the evictions process to require a 30 day waiting period rather than the standard seven-day period for qualifying evictions. That encompasses any evictions for non-payment of rent where at least some of the unpaid rent dated from before July.

Absentee voting, paid leave

Sununu also vetoed two more Democratic priorities Friday: an expansion of absentee voting and a mandatory paid family and medical leave program.

The first, House Bill 1672, included a number of long-time Democratic priorities for changing voting laws. The bill would institute “no excuse” absentee voting, allowing anyone to vote absentee without needing a specific reason.

In response to concern over polling places in the Sept. 8 state primary and Nov. 3 general election, Secretary of State Bill Gardner and Attorney General Gordan MacDonald have said that for this year only, voters may check the “disability” box to indicate that they are voting absentee due to worries about COVID. A separate bill seeking to clarify that process will head to Sununu’s desk later this summer.

HB 1672 would also institute an online voter registration system and mandate that New Hampshire enter into the Electronic Registration Information Center, a non-profit multi-state service to check for election fraud.

And the governor vetoed House Bill 712, which would have created a universal paid family and medical leave program paid for by employers or employees. The language was identical to a version passed in 2019 – Senate Bill 1 – that Sununu vetoed last summer.

Amid the vetoes, the governor did sign House Bill 1129, which will allow town meetings to be held virtually and requires that towns keep an active and online tally of all spending of federal stimulus money during the coronavirus.

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