State passes $20 million lifeline to rental assistance recipients
This story was updated Tuesday, Nov. 22 at 5:37 p.m. to include Tuesday’s vote from the Executive Council approving the funding.
A day after the midterm elections, Lebanon Mayor Tim McNamara penned a letter to Gov. Chris Sununu outlining an urgent situation.
New Hampshire’s rental relief program was ending due to a lack of federal funding, McNamara wrote, and some of the recipients were about to lose their housing. Many of the residents who were receiving rental assistance had been boarded in hotels in stays paid for by the rental relief program. Now, those residents were likely to be kicked out, he wrote.
“These individuals are understandably anxious about where they will go next given the lack of available options,” McNamara wrote in the Nov. 9 letter reviewed by the Bulletin.
The situation would have financial ramifications for cities as well, McNamara added. If no action were taken, the cities would be required by state law to find funding to address residents’ housing needs themselves.
“Municipalities will quickly discover that their local welfare budgets are insufficient to meet this need,” McNamara wrote.
Last week, the state responded. New Hampshire officials will devote $20 million in federal COVID relief money to help the hundreds of people without housing to stay in hotels through the winter, after the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee approved the $20 million request Friday. The spending was approved by the Executive Council Tuesday.
The $20 million passed by the Fiscal Committee will be available to any hotel resident that had applied for rental relief before Oct. 21, the day the state froze new applications. Those who are staying in hotels but did not have an application in the pipeline before Oct. 21 will not be eligible, according to Chase Hagaman, deputy director of the Governor’s Office for Rental Relief and Recovery.
According to the state, the $20 million will fund tenants’ hotel stays until June for tenants with children, and until April for individuals and tenants without children. The state will “encourage” those hotels to use the extended aid to keep housing the families through the winter, according to the proposal sent to the committee.
It is unclear how many individuals would benefit. More than 700 people who are receiving rental assistance were estimated to be staying in hotels in September due to a lack of available housing, according to a report from the Granite State News Collaborative. The state has not released exact totals for November.
And the money approved will be limited to people living in hotels; it will not help tenants who are receiving the rental assistance but living in rental housing. New Hampshire’s rental assistance program is set to end Dec. 29, according to Sununu.
“It looks like that $20 million is going to be a big help,” said Elliott Berry, the recently-retired Housing Project Director for New Hampshire Legal Assistance, in an interview. “But it doesn’t do much for the many, many people who can’t afford the rent that the emergency room rental assistance program has been paying on their behalf.”
But advocates for housing say that the $20 million is nonetheless a useful move.
“We are pleased that (the Fiscal Committee) approved additional (American Rescue Plan Act) funds to keep people who are currently residing in hotels and motels housed through the cold winter months and we urge the Executive Council to support this time sensitive issue as well,” said Housing Action New Hampshire, a nonprofit organization, in a statement Friday.
The approval comes as New Hampshire’s rental market could be heading into further turmoil.
The state announced a likely end to its rental assistance program last month, following a pullback in funding to the state from the U.S. Treasury Department in October. That month, New Hampshire Housing, the state agency that distributes the housing assistance funds, announced that it was freezing the application process for rental relief, citing the apparent lack of continued federal funding.
After the lapse in funding, affordable housing groups and legal organizations pressed Sununu and Taylor Caswell, director of the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery (GOFERR), to propose a transition plan to help the individuals who were relying on the rental relief.
The pressure started with a Nov. 1 letter to Sununu from a coalition of organizations across the state, including representatives for Housing Action, Families in Transition, ABLE NH, Waypoint, and a number of mayors and selectboard members.
The organizers said that of all the rental aid recipients who were about to lose their support, those who were living in hotels due to a lack of options would suffer the most acutely – and should be prioritized.
“Households dealing with economic hardship, medical crises, substance use disorders, or a history of domestic violence are facing an extremely tight rental market, with high monthly costs, long waitlists and very few options,” the letter noted. Providing additional funding through the winter would allow them more time to figure out those options while avoiding difficulties during winter, the advocates noted.
A week later, McNamara, the Lebanon mayor, sent his letter addressing the end of funding for those living in hotels, claiming that many hotels were already asking people on the program to leave. Should the families lose housing, the city would be obligated to provide welfare services under RSA 165, McNamara noted.
He also pushed to secure a meeting between Caswell and other New Hampshire mayors.
In an interview, Hagaman noted other services available to people in hotels. On Friday, the Fiscal Committee also approved $3.3 million in the state’s emergency rental assistance money to go toward wraparound services and case managers to find housing for displaced tenants, as well as to help incentivize landlords to rent to lower-income tenants.
“I don’t think every family utilizes those services, but they’re there for those who need them who want them,” Hagaman said.
Estimating exactly how many people are currently living in hotels is difficult given the fluctuations in peoples’ situations, Hagaman said. But he said $20 million should cover the families whose applications are currently in line to be processed. And he said the state deliberately chose a June cutoff date for families with children to be able to keep their children in their local school district through the school year, and an April cutoff date for people without children to get through the winter.
The $20 million hotel assistance money is not coming out of the state’s remaining federal emergency rental assistance money, which is running low. Rather, the funds will come out of the state’s remaining allocation of ARPA, which are not required to be used for housing, according to Hagaman.
Absent a funding reversal from the Treasury, the state is limited in how much it can do, Hagaman said.
“It’s basically looking at the funding that we currently have and seeing how far it can go,” he said.
After two years of expenditures, the state currently has around $100 million left of the original $1.2 billion allocation under ARPA, Hagaman said. “That’s the downside with getting toward the end of available funding: Now you’re figuring out what the priorities are,” he said.
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