Business & Economy

‘A different paradigm’: Housing advocates praise wave of rent relief as answer to eviction fears

Judge Robert Mello speaks with plaintiffs and defendants over speakerphone at an in-person eviction hearing at Rutland Superior Court last June. Photo by Emma Cotton/VTDigger

Housing advocates are lauding a portion of the American Rescue Plan that will help Vermonters pay their rent and utilities bills, saying it will bolster an eviction prevention plan that has been a key public health measure during the pandemic. 

Vermonters will receive $152 million for rent, mortgage and utilities assistance from the massive Covid-19 relief plan, according to the office of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. In total, the plan will send Vermont $2.7 billion for a gamut of programs

Federal guidelines say 75% of the rental assistance money — about $114 million — must go directly to Vermonters to pay their rental bills. The remainder may go toward administrative costs and other forms of housing relief, such as stable housing for the homeless, said Stephen Klein, an analyst for the Legislative Joint Fiscal Office.

As the pandemic wears on and Vermonters struggle to pay bills, the level of relief promises to be “monumental” for Vermont renters, said Josh Hanford, commissioner of the Department of Housing and Community Development. 

States are still awaiting federal guidelines on how to distribute the ARPA funds. But between that money and additional relief from winter’s Consolidated Appropriations Act, housing advocates and officials estimate that $280 million in federal money is set to be distributed through the state’s rental assistance program in the months ahead.

The money will help pay Vermonters’ back rent, future rental payments and utility bills. 

Between the two federal relief bills, the quantity of rental assistance headed to Vermont “could keep Vermonters from being evicted for nonpayments this year — or even longer,” said Jean Murray, a staff lawyer for Vermont Legal Aid, who represents renters in eviction cases.

There have been few evictions in Vermont since Gov. Phil Scott’s Covid-19 emergency order enacted a moratorium on nonpayment rental evictions and home foreclosures a year ago. The order has remained in effect since then, as Scott has renewed the state of emergency on the 15th of each month that the pandemic has continued.

All court-ordered evictions are stalled under the rule, with rare exceptions, such as when a tenant damages a landlord’s property. The moratorium has been a key safety measure in Vermont’s pandemic response, Murray said — and not just for those who are being kept in their homes.

Moratorium seen as benefiting all Vermonters 

“It continues to work to help the health and safety of Vermonters,” Murray said of the moratorium. “Not just the Vermonters that are tenants or landlords, but all Vermonters, by keeping people away from situations in which they have to interact with others.”

While landlords collaborated with renters’ groups on the moratorium in 2020 and agree on its public health benefits, some have felt stymied by the strictness of the order.

Courts have placed a high bar for them to prove that renter actions such as property damage merit exemptions, Angela Zaikowski, director of the Vermont Landlord Association, told the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs in March.

“Only very extreme [eviction] cases are being allowed to proceed,” Zaikowski said. “In some circumstances, that means a complete evidentiary hearing showing that they are within these exemptions.”

Angela Zaikowski, director of the Vermont Landlord Association. VLA photo

Vermont’s order is wider reaching than a federal eviction moratorium recently extended by the Centers for Disease Control, which has simultaneously drawn fire from renter advocacy groups for being too lax, and from landlords’ associations for putting them under financial strain. 

The state-level order does not absolve renters of paying rent and utilities. Rather, it establishes their right to housing during the pandemic health emergency.

The rationale for the moratorium rests on a straightforward public health strategy: the idea that leaving evicted renters destitute during the pandemic posed a risk to their health, legislative counsel David Hall told the House General Affairs committee.

“People experiencing homelessness may be at higher risk of getting Covid-19, including because many are older adults, or they may have underlying medical conditions that put them at risk of severe illness,” said Ben Truman, a Department of Health spokesman, in an emailed response to questions about the moratorium’s health benefits. “It’s important that Vermonters have support and care to improve health equity they deserve.”

Because the moratorium doesn’t absolve tenants of their obligation to pay their bills, they will still owe landlords backlogged rent and utility payments once the pandemic subsides — stoking worries over a wave of evictions when that happens.

Stemming the tide on evictions

Last October, a study suggested that Vermont could be hit by as many as 10,000 evictions in the pandemic’s waning months. Housing advocates agreed that those projections were overblown, though, considering protections enacted to prevent such a crisis at the moratorium’s close. 

Now, officials believe that the “historic” amount of rent relief offered by the two tranches of federal money may substantially curb evictions when that occurs, said Hanford, the housing department commissioner.

“This money offers a different paradigm. It shows we don’t have to rely on evictions to solve landlord-tenant problems,” Murray said.

Vermonters who need help paying rent and utilities may apply online through the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

When they are approved to receive relief, payments will end up going directly to their landlords. Households must receive below 80% of their area’s median income and must demonstrate having faced Covid-related impacts to qualify for the funds.

Josh Hanford from the Department of Housing and Community Development testifies
Josh Hanford, commissioner of the Department of Housing and Community Development, testifies at the Statehouse in 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Unlike an earlier wave of relief distributed through last year’s Coronavirus Relief Funds, Hanford said, Vermonters may use the new relief money to pay for future rent payments — as well as past, overdue ones covered by the earlier funding.

Distribution of the ARPA relief is still months away, as federal guidelines for the rollout are forthcoming. But the state began accepting applications for rental assistance funds from the earlier wave of federal relief this week. 

Hanford urged Vermonters who need the help to take advantage of the rental assistance program. 

“A key here is that the tenant has to accept and apply for these funds,” he said. “There is a risk that some tenants are not responsive. If they ignore this help and the emergency order ends the eviction moratorium, they will miss out, and their housing could be in jeopardy.” 

Parts of both tranches of funding allocated towards administrative costs will go to organizations like Legal Aid and other community groups to help them spread the word about the funds, Hanford said.

Covid-19 cases recently hit an all-pandemic high in Vermont, and Scott renewed the pandemic-induced state of emergency on March 15 — extending the eviction moratorium until at least April 15.

On Tuesday, he rolled out a four-part plan to lift most pandemic restrictions by July 4. As he announced that plan, Scott offered a noncommittal response to the question of when he thinks the state of emergency might be repealed.

The date at which the state of emergency might end is “not definite at this point in time,” Scott said. 

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James Finn

About James

James is a senior at Middlebury College majoring in history and Spanish. He is currently editor at large at the Middlebury Campus, having previously served as managing editor, news editor and in several other roles there. James was a reporter this summer at the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and earlier was an intern at the Addison County Independent.

Email: jfinn@vtdigger.org

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