CONCORD — New Hampshire housing advocates are pushing for immediate improvements to a new state housing assistance program, whose slow rollout has many tenants facing a risk of eviction before their aid arrives.
The state launched the New Hampshire Housing Relief Program on June 30, which is designed to assist renters and homeowners with their payments for rent, utilities and mortgages during the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic. Using $35 million in federal funds received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the program is distributing $20 million between the state’s five Community Action Programs (CAPs) to assist residents and property owners in their serving communities. The remaining $15 million has been placed in a reserve for future assistance initiatives.
Each CAP serves two to three counties in New Hampshire. For example, Southwestern Community Services administers programs to Sullivan and Cheshire counties.
The Housing Relief Program’s roll-out intentionally coincided with the expiration of New Hampshire’s eviction moratorium, which until July 1 had protected tenants from eviction. Through the relief program, applicants could receive up to $2,500 in one-time aid, or up to $6,000 for long-term needs, to spend on rent, utilities, mortgage payments or property taxes.
But one month since its launch, the program is struggling to keep pace with the applications and granting funds.
According to recent data from the Department of Health and Human Services, the program has received 4,701 inquiries and sent out 4,503 applications. Yet only 1,385 completed applications have been submitted and only 139 applications have been approved.
Aron Dibacco, an community organizer with the Granite State Organizing Project, a grassroots community advocacy program, said the delays are not deliberate.
“Everybody wanted this to go smoothly,” Dibacco said. “Nobody wanted this to happen. And I don’t know why they got tripped up by their own feet.”
Dibacco said she believes that the programs in place were simply overwhelmed by the flood of requests for help, similarly to how many agencies nationwide were slow to process the high volume of unemployment claims.
A letter published this week by Housing Action New Hampshire, a housing advocacy group in Concord, makes several recommendations to simplify the application process and improve the program’s accessibility.
Among the major red flags in the program’s data is that less than 30% of the inquirers who receive an application are submitting them, Housing Action New Hampshire noted.
The Concord-based organization recommends conducting case follow-ups with inquirers and simplifying the application requirements by allowing applicants to complete an affidavit in lieu of a missing document related to program eligibility.
Housing Action NH also recommends making paper applications more available in the community and creating a centralized intake rather than expecting residents to find their community’s particular CAP.
While supporting Housing Action New Hampshire’s recommendations, Dibacco said she remains worried about the expiration of the protection on tenants from eviction.
Gov. Sununu, who allowed the eviction moratorium to expire, offered a temporary compromise by extending the period of notice before a landlord can evict a tenant from seven days to 30.
But 30 days since the moratorium expired has now passed. Housing advocates worry that tenants who applied for assistance could potentially be evicted before the money is sent, Dibacco said.
The Granite State Organizing Project, in its own recommendation to the state, is advocating that Sununu authorize an additional 30-day hold on evictions, to give the program more time to send the aid.
The good news is the state expects to release new program changes to improve the accessibility and response time next week, Dibacco said. Granite State Organizing Project, whose work includes educating residents and communities about tenant rights and resources, hopes to present the new policies in their next webinar presentation, Housing Standards, Rent Abatement and Withholding, on Thursday, Aug. 13.
“Clearly people realize there is an issue [with the relief program] and want to fix it,” Dibacco said.