Gov. Phil Scott’s decision to lift the state’s emergency Covid-19 order heralds a return to pre-pandemic normalcy: gatherings with friends, open businesses and the elimination of public health restrictions.
But it also brings challenges and changes to policies governing how the state treats vulnerable Vermonters, including potential new limits on federal funding for social-service programs and an impending end to a moratorium on evictions.
With 80% of Vermonters at least partially vaccinated against Covid-19, Gov. Phil Scott on Monday moved to fully reopen the state, removing all pandemic restrictions for the first time in more than 15 months.
Vermont’s state of emergency was already set to expire at the end of the night on Tuesday, and Scott said he would not renew it at that time. Versions of the order had been in place since March 2020.
The lifting of the emergency order will trigger the expiration of Vermont’s eviction moratorium 30 days later, in mid-July. At that time, tenants who have not paid landlords back rent can be legally evicted from their residences.
Community organizations across the state are also concerned that the end of the state of emergency will result in funding cuts to social-service programs that were expanded during the pandemic. It could cost the state federal resources necessary to provide housing and food to vulnerable Vermonters, they say.
Sue Minter, executive director of Capstone Community Action, an anti-poverty agency based in Barre, said she’s worried it will harm thousands of vulnerable Vermonters.
“Amazingly, this Covid time, for some, has actually been a time of safety and security that they’ve been struggling to find,” Minter said Monday. “And we worry that the trauma of a very swift transition is not going to be in their best interest.”
Ending the eviction moratorium
Vermont’s eviction moratorium, slated to end July 15, dates back to May 2020.
Earlier this spring, according to Vermont Legal Aid, 600 tenants faced eviction cases in the state’s court system. Such cases could not move forward during the pandemic.
The state currently has a windfall of federal dollars at its disposal to help tenants pay the rent they owe.
In December, former President Donald Trump signed a Covid-19 relief bill into law that sent Vermont $200 million in rental assistance. In addition, Vermont is expected to receive another $152 million in rental assistance from the American Rescue Plan Act in the coming months.
“I feel like we have the resources to really prevent any surge in evictions due to lack of payment of rent,” said Josh Hanford, Vermont’s housing commissioner.
According to Vermont Legal Aid, however, the rollout of the state’s effort to deliver the funding, the Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance Program, has been slow and hard for many Vermonters to access.
Grace Pazdan, a legal aid attorney, said the online-only application process is complicated and can be difficult for older adults, people with disabilities and those without internet access. In addition, she said, her organization has clients who submitted applications in April but have yet to receive funds to pay their rent.
“These people are living every day with the fear of the eviction moratorium being lifted,” Pazdan said. “Some of them have eviction notices already in hand from their landlords, and they’re doing everything they can to get the landlords paid, but the system’s just moving really, really slowly right now.”
She said her organization is “worried about the timing” of the end of the eviction moratorium “because 30 days is a pretty short timeline based on how slowly we’ve seen things moving with the [Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance Program].”
Across the nation, the federal rental assistance approved in December has been slow to reach tenants and landlords. That’s in part because the federal government has put forward strict documentation requirements for tenants applying for the funds.
“Some of the bureaucracy to prevent any sort of abuse, fraud and make sure that money was spent correctly … takes extra time and may be presenting some barriers,” Hanford said.
State officials are addressing the problem by partnering with 20 organizations throughout the state to help tenants fill out applications, he said.
“I think we have plenty of resources to make sure folks get the rental assistance that they’re eligible for,” Hanford said. “It’s making sure everyone takes the time to submit their application, works through any of the challenges and provides the documentation that’s required in the law to disperse these funds.”
Maintaining pandemic services
In a letter to Scott last week, 130 Vermont businesses and organizations urged the governor to keep the state of emergency in place in order to maintain increased funding for social services.
The state has relied on money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for pandemic initiatives, including its efforts to feed and house those experiencing homelessness in hotels and motels across the state. Without a state of emergency in place, Vermont could lose access to such funds.
The Scott administration has said that the state will continue to receive federal dollars for emergency food distribution and housing programs as long as the governor signs an executive order to continue the services.
Scott said Monday that he intends to issue a new executive order on Tuesday that will “fill the gaps” left by the end of the state of emergency and prevent “any cliffs from happening.”
“As of tomorrow night, we will have a gradual slope away from the state of emergency for those who are impacted in terms of housing and feeding programs,” Scott said. “We’ll have more details tomorrow.”
Minter said she’s worried the state will lose funding it needs to maintain food security programs such as Everyone Eats, which was established by the Legislature during the pandemic. The program, which now relies on FEMA funding, works with restaurants to provide meals for those who have trouble accessing food.
“At a certain point, we’re going to have to either completely end that, or dramatically scale back, and on what timetable we don’t know,” said Minter, whose organization distributes food through the program.
“And what does that look like, and how do we prioritize who does and who doesn’t get meals?” she asked.
In addition, Minter raised concerns about the longevity of FEMA funding that’s been used to help feed homeless residents staying in motels across the state.
The state recently tightened its eligibility requirements for homeless Vermonters seeking housing in motels: As of July 1, about 700 people — roughly a third of the 2,100 adults and 370 kids living in motels — could be forced to find new housing.
Minter said that the systems of support the state has offered during the pandemic “are just going to end very quickly.”
“It was a slow turning of the spigot, and now it’s just a flip of the switch,” Minter said. “And for people who are very insecure in their situation, whether it’s their mental health, their physical location or their food access, it’s really going to be difficult.”
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