Renee Tonge stands outside Manchester District Court on Friday after using New Hampshire’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program to remove $10,000 in overdue rent. (Ethan DeWitt | New Hampshire Bulletin)
The setbacks started with remote learning. Suddenly, Renee Tonge’s daughter was home all the time, and the Manchester resident had to make drastic adjustments to help her.
Tonge quit her job to focus on her children. She struggled to find child care for her younger son. She fell behind on rent, month by month, until the debt she owed surged past $10,000. Eventually, she received the eviction notice.
That might have been the end for Tonge’s hopes of holding onto her apartment. But she applied to a state program, funded by federal money, that assists renters who have fallen behind – even by thousands of dollars. And on Friday, standing outside the Manchester Circuit Court, she discovered a different ending.
All $10,000 in back rent was being repaid to her landlord through a state aid agency, using money dedicated to New Hampshire from a congressional COVID-19 stimulus package.
“They said that she’s gonna call them as soon as I left and let them know that I was all set,” Tonge said, referring to aid workers from the agency. “They are gonna tear up any notices because they should be getting a check within the week.”
Tonge was the beneficiary of a $200 million rental relief program that housing advocates have been trying to tell tenants about for months. But she was also an early success story of a new effort by the state’s court system to connect tenants with financial aid and stop evictions at the last possible minute.
A week after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a moratorium that had helped prevent evictions, aid organizations in New Hampshire are trying an expedited, in-person approach this month.
In a partnership with Southern New Hampshire Services, the agency that administers rental relief aid for the Manchester area, the Manchester Circuit Court hosted a special conference room where tenants facing eviction proceedings could get their rental relief applications fast-tracked to completion.
Throughout the day Friday, landlords and tenants trickled into the court to face their eviction hearing. Each time, the clerk and judge asked whether they had applied for rental relief to make up for past and future rent. Those who were interested entered a side room staffed by Southern New Hampshire Services, who guided the tenant through the verification process.
The effort typically lasted 10 minutes. By the end, many of the parties had taken proactive steps that allowed the judge to put the eviction on hold – or waive it entirely.
Some parties didn’t have eviction proceedings to attend, but they came into the courthouse anyway, taking the opportunity to get their relief application updated or expedited.
And many of the applications were prompted by landlords, happy that the in-person, immediate assistance could help convince some tenants to sign off on the applications.
“The approach today has been extremely proactive,” said Sean Curran, an eviction attorney who represents landlords. Throughout the day Friday, Curran used the new process to help clients resolve impasses that could have otherwise taken weeks.
“My experience and my clients’ experience with it today was fantastic,” he said. “A tenant who had not gotten the application completed was able to do the new application from the start, and we got through it in 10 minutes.”
For Tonge, the assistance came at a perfect moment. With schools reopening in person this fall, she can re-enter the workforce and start to pay rent on her own.
Without the money, “I’d be homeless, carless, jobless,” she said. With it, she’d hit a reset button.
New Hampshire’s rental relief program has existed since March and carries tangible benefits. Tenants and landlords can apply to have federal funds replace up to 15 months of rent owed, either in the past or the future. The money – which is expected to last at least through 2022 – usually is transferred directly to landlords, giving them an incentive to seek tenant cooperation.
But the program has been slow to distribute aid to its applicants, with many waiting four to six weeks for money to be approved. And housing attorneys say many tenants and landlords are still unaware of it.
The new in-person partnership is limited, designed in its first iteration to take place Sept. 2, 3, and 7. And with just a few dozen cases moving through the Manchester system on those days, the rental relief applications approved in the courthouse represent a small fraction of the overall statewide backlog.
But the in-person system provided instant relief for both landlords and tenants, court officials said, and helped many renters stave off painful outcomes.
“The court strongly encourages landlords and tenants to work together and apply online for assistance before an eviction case is even filed, but we know that some litigants face barriers to completing an online application,” Administrative Judge David King said in a statement. “Providing in-person assistance at our busiest courthouse as we hear cases affected by the moratorium will help ensure that as many landlords and tenants as possible can access the assistance they need.”
Housing experts and attorneys expect New Hampshire’s eviction caseload to increase in the coming weeks, following the abrupt end of the eviction moratorium from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Anticipating a spike, court officials are hoping to expand Manchester’s in-person model to other New Hampshire courts and increase the number of days it’s available.
But some said there are still cracks in the current system of distributing aid.
Landlords have expressed concern that some tenants are refusing to help out with applying for the aid. Without tenant cooperation, the landlord cannot reclaim their money and the eviction – which carries a permanent mark on the tenant’s record – can proceed.
“I have a few tenants, and I have one, two, three, four that are not paying,” said Kim Collins. One of her tenants is 13 months behind, she said. Collins urged him to get in touch with the local Community Action Program, Southern New Hampshire Services.
After talking with an aid worker, that tenant refused to participate.
It was a doubly confounding decision, she said. “One, they don’t help me if they don’t do it. Two, they’re going to get evicted because they didn’t show up.”
Meanwhile, for some tenants who did pursue the money Friday, the effort did not always guarantee that their evictions would be extinguished.
For Jessica Haynes, the approval of the rental relief money – nearly $5,000 in total – did not prevent the judge from approving the eviction order. But it did allow the postponement of its effective date by a month, allowing her extra time to find a new place. “With a sky-high rental market, Haynes is not sure she’ll be successful.
“It’s really, really bad out there,” she said.
Riuben, a Manchester native who declined to give his last name, was in a more uncertain position. The CAP agency employees at the court had assured him that his application would be approved, but he didn’t have confirmation that the eviction was called off.
“We’ll see if my landlord accepts it or not,” he said.
Still, he’s happy he showed up to the court Friday. “I’ve been home stressing out, wondering if I’m going to be accepted. (Today) I realized I’m eligible and accepted.”
“I think it’s awesome for people that need help,” he added, speaking of the program. “It’s a lot of people out there that are hurting right now.”
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.