Transition from motels troubled

By LOLA DUFFORT

VTDigger

Published: 08-13-2023 11:56 AM

The state of Vermont was given an unusual task in a last-minute legislative deal brokered in June that extended publicly financed motel-based shelter for more than 2,000 unhoused individuals. It was charged with attempting to rehouse or shelter everyone by April 2024 and required to report back to the Legislature on its progress — every single month.

Lawmakers received their first update from state officials last week. The upshot: From an original cohort of 1,250 households, 174 left the program in July, according to data compiled by the state. But the vast majority did not necessarily leave for alternative housing or shelter.

Of those who left the motels, officials could only confirm that 34 households had found housing in an apartment, and eight had found “other” types of shelter. Another 11 households were kicked out for misconduct. But those figures are dwarfed by the number of households — 113 — that exited from the program because they did not successfully renew their benefits, a process that they must undertake every 28 days.

“You may see that number go down because as individuals lose their benefits, that sometimes entices them to reach out to the state,” Human Services Secretary Jenney Samuelson told the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee on July 31. “And so we’re doing everything we can to make sure that they don’t lose eligibility just because they didn’t contact us.”

But on the ground, some who work directly with those staying in motels say it’s often the state that is hard to contact — not the other way around. Brenda Siegel, an activist who runs an informal housing hotline, said she’s seen people lose their rooms despite “literally calling every day and being on hold, but the hotel wasn’t able to wait anymore.” People with disabilities in particular are having difficulty navigating yet another new program, she added.

She was echoed by Rick DeAngelis, co-director of the Good Samaritan Haven, a network of shelters in central Vermont. He recounted how one employee, stationed at one of the motels, had helped an elderly man who sat on hold for hours trying to get his voucher renewed.

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“If people are being bounced because they can’t be recertified, that’s probably not right, because it’s almost impossible to figure out how to get recertified,” he said.

Many of those sheltered in motels — or who have recently left — at one point participated in the state’s former transitional housing program, which would have entitled them to a $3,300 publicly financed security deposit when that program ended, as long as they kept their rooms in good condition. But former motel residents and their advocates have complained that certain motel owners wrongly pocketed the deposits instead.

In response to those concerns, lawmakers also required state officials to report how many households actually got their deposits back from motels. But while Samuelson’s report noted that just a little over $5 million was due back to tenants, it was silent on how many had actually received that cash.

“So that $5 million number there should have been returned?” Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden Central, asked Samuelson during last week’s meeting. “But we don’t have any idea about how much was?”

“We do not have any information on the amount of that that was returned,” she replied. “We do know that the Attorney General’s Office and … Vermont Legal Aid have been working with clients who feel like they did not receive their security deposits back and or hotels who may not have administered the program appropriately.”

When Baruth pressed the point, asking why the state could not simply ask motels whether or not they had actually returned the money to its tenants, Doug Farnham, the deputy secretary for the Agency of Administration, jumped in. Federal rules, he said, blocked the state from “imposing additional conditions on landlords.”

“The state had very limited capabilities because of the federal restrictions on the program,” he said.

When Baruth remarked that he wanted to “note the craziness of pouring millions of dollars into a program” without any reporting on where the money wound up, Samuelson chimed back in.

“I can understand your being confounded by the federal regulations and policies,” she said. “But again, we did look into this several times and we were not able to legally require the hotels to report this back.”

The U.S. Department of the Treasury, which doled out the federal Emergency Rental Assistance funds that Vermont used to pay for the security deposits, however, disagrees. Asked whether federal rules prohibited Vermont from requiring motels to report whether they withheld deposits, Jenna Valle-Riestra, a spokesperson for the agency, pointed to the Treasury’s public guidance documents and wrote that “neither limits states’ ability to track the use of ERA program funds.”

Confronted by the Treasury official’s statement, Rachel Feldman, a spokesperson for the Vermont Agency of Human Services, appeared to reverse her boss’ prior pronouncement. But she also argued that even if Vermont had kept tabs on where the money went, its hands would have been tied.

“Treasury is correct that Vermont could try to track those payments, but the disposition of the security deposit is a legal matter between the renter and the landlord; we have no standing to act on any information gathered,” Feldman wrote in an email.

On this point, Treasury appeared to disagree as well. Valle-Reistra again pointed VTDigger to the agency’s public FAQs and wrote that “neither would prevent a state from taking action if a landlord failed to comply with requirements regarding security deposits.”

Baruth, in an interview, said he wasn’t surprised the Treasury Department had contradicted state officials. “I remember being underwhelmed by their answers,” he said.

The Joint Fiscal Committee is meeting again in a month, and Baruth said he planned to follow up. The point of the new law was that “there would be more continuous oversight,” he said.

“This seems a good place to be exercising that and without, you know, relitigating too much of the past, we can say that the deposits are an ongoing issue, and we want to make sure that they’re distributed as was planned,” he said.

As for the number of people housed thus far, Baruth said he wanted to get more data before weighing in. But he acknowledged feeling discouraged by this first glimpse of the challenge ahead.

“The whole exercise, honestly, is a depressing one,” he said. “Our system is not currently capable of housing all these folks, other than the motels. And that’s obviously not an ideal solution.”

Meanwhile, Mark Hengstler, an attorney at Legal Services Vermont, a nonprofit that provides low-income Vermonters legal help in civil cases, said he continues to help motel residents pursue cases against motel owners who withheld deposits. But the Attorney General’s Office, he said, “is not being helpful.”

“I believe they are in a unique position to help people who are vulnerable,” he wrote in an email last week. “Thus far, they appear uninterested in doing that.”

Lauren Jandl, chief of staff to Vermont Attorney General Charity Clark, wrote in an email that it was office policy “that we do not comment on whether investigations exist or on ongoing investigations.”

“I can, however, disclose to you that this matter remains a top priority for Attorney General Clark,” she said, before adding that Vermonters who believe their security deposits were wrongfully withheld should contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program to assist in an investigation, “should one exist.”

They can do so by calling 800-649-2424 or visiting ago.vermont.gov/cap, she said.