Eviction worries mount as CDC moratorium is set to end

By: - May 14, 2021 6:15 am
An eviction notice on a table next to a mask

The state has distributed just under half of its federal rental relief allocation. (Getty Images)

These days, the complicated state of New Hampshire’s economy can be seen in a number: the weekly eviction rate.

At 60 evictions filed in state courts per week, the number is about half of what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic, notes Elliott Berry, a housing attorney with New Hampshire Legal Assistance 

But it’s not exactly zero, either – even with a federal eviction moratorium that in theory has prevented landlords from initiating evictions for nonpayment of rent. 

“Plenty have gone forward,” Berry said. “But on the other hand, plenty have not.”

Now, as state and federal officials begin to pare back pandemic-era protections, Berry and other housing experts are keeping their eye on a key event: The federal moratorium on evictions is set to end soon, and New Hampshire housing attorneys say a spike in tenants removed from their homes is likely to follow. 

According to the current directive, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal eviction moratorium is set to expire at the end of June. 

But a lawsuit could accelerate that. On May 5, a U.S. District Court judge struck down the CDC’s moratorium, finding the move exceeded the agency’s constitutional authority as a public health department. That ruling has been temporarily stayed but could be finalized in a matter of weeks. 

Either way, the end of the moratorium, a last line of defense for some tenants, will have consequences, experts warn. 

“We’re seeing a little uptick in calls of clients just becoming more nervous about the moratorium ending, whether it’s still in effect, whether it applies to them,” said Marta Hurgin, an attorney with the Legal Advice and Referral Center, which helps tenants navigate eviction cases.

“Landlords, I think, are becoming a little more antsy and motivated to try to get out tenants that have been in place throughout the moratorium,” Hurgin said.

For now, experts are hoping a new round of rental assistance in New Hampshire – and new changes to who is eligible for that system – could lessen the impact for tenants and landlords.

“I’m hopeful, really hopeful, that a number of people will take advantage of the emergency rental assistance programs administered by their local community action agencies,” Berry said. “But there are people who won’t be eligible for that, and it’s not going to be pretty.”

‘Perfect storm’

The current situation is a familiar one for many tenants, landlords, and attorneys. Almost a year ago, conditions were nearly the same: An eviction moratorium was expiring, and lawyers were bracing for a wave of evicted tenants.

In March 2020, Gov. Chris Sununu instituted a statewide moratorium against evictions for nonpayment of rent, as businesses and restaurants began shedding employees and residents hunkered in homes. 

The move partially blunted the possibility that tenants would lose their incomes and homes, and helped encourage people to stay home during social distancing, housing experts said at the time.

But in May 2020, Sununu announced that the state was lifting the hold on July 1, arguing that the economic impact of allowing rent to be left unpaid was piling up.

Housing advocates at the time denounced the move. The rent protections were disappearing just as the $600 a week unemployment insurance supplement was also due to expire. It was the “perfect storm,” said Elissa Margolin, director of Housing Action NH. 

Sununu disagreed, noting that the state had set up a $35 million rental relief program to cover COVID-related nonpayment of rent as an “off ramp,” while stressing the amount of advance notice given. 

Twelve months later, a new moratorium is expiring: the federal halt to evictions established by the CDC in September. That moratorium helped stave off some of the feared evictions last summer, experts say. 

And Sununu confirmed this month he has no plans to add a new state moratorium.

“We have an incredibly strong economy, the strongest in the country, frankly,” Sununu said at a May 6 press conference. “We have some of the highest wages in the country, the most economic opportunity for individuals in the country. So, no, I mean, if you started an eviction moratorium now, I don’t know when you’d ever end it, if you’re not going to end it now.”

This time around, as the last eviction backstop goes away, attorneys and observers hope a new state aid program can help curb the worst effects. 

Flowing money

For New Hampshire renters and landlords, December’s congressional aid package was a game-changer.

Among the $900 billion in COVID relief money were funds specifically designated for housing assistance. New Hampshire received around $200 million – nearly six times the amount set aside by the state in the previous year. 

The resulting program, the New Hampshire Emergency Rental Assistance Program, will not only deliver a higher volume of assistance, it will also speed up how that assistance reaches landlords and relieves tenants, observers say.

Throughout 2020, housing advocates and state officials faced frustrating delays in distributing the $35 million in housing assistance set aside by the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery, which distributed federal stimulus funds. Complicated paperwork demands for tenants and bureaucratic bottlenecks caused the funds to leave slowly and sparsely.

This time, reforms have allowed that money to flow faster. The state has removed caps on how much money can go to tenants, and has allowed the money to be used for back rent or prospective payments. And landlords may now apply for the aid themselves – rather than relying on tenants to submit an application – and get sign-off from tenants in the process.

As of May 7, the state had distributed $7.5 million of the aid, serving 1,506 households since the renewed program launched in March, according to the governor’s office. 

“I would certainly say that I think it’s working better this time,” Hurgin said. “The application seems more streamlined. The guidance from the federal government I think captures more people and helps more people.”

The system means that landlords can work with tenants and come up with payment plans that can avoid eviction, just as many did last year when tenants received IRS stimulus checks. 

“I think in many cases that’s going to happen again, especially if landlords know that their tenants have applied for the current program,” Berry said.

Still, the new assistance can address only so many eviction situations. Depending on what the landlord wants, and what relationship they have with the tenant, the landlord may decide in one situation that rental assistance is the best option, and in another that the eviction is necessary.

“Landlords in New Hampshire are in a pretty good position,” Hurgin said, pointing to a vacancy rate that has hovered around 2 percent.

“I think landlords feel like if they want a new tenant for whatever reason, they’ll be able to get one,” Hurgin added. “If tenants have a good relationship with their landlord, I think that landlords may be willing to work out some sort of assistance and keep them in the apartment. . . . I think it just depends on how landlords feel about who’s in their apartments right now.”

For Berry, the key priority is making sure tenants apply. 

“The money is out there,” Berry said. “We just have to figure out a way to get it to everybody who’s eligible.” 

If you’re in need of rental assistance, contact your local Community Action Program at https://www.capnh.org/ and apply online.

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel. Email: [email protected]