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Sununu sets up rent assistance program but lifts cap on evictions

  • 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)

Concord Monitor
Published: 7/3/2020 9:09:23 PM
Modified: 7/3/2020 9:19:39 PM

Gov. Chris Sununu this week 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 per 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.

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

That’s according to Elliot Berry, an attorney and housing project director at New Hampshire Legal Assistance, which helps 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 a new July 1 end-date.

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 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 who 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.




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