Supreme Court lifting of eviction moratorium puts focus on Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance

Rental properties in Burlington on Friday, April 19, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Updated at 8:31 p.m.

The Supreme Court’s lifting of the federal moratorium on evictions Thursday increases pressure on state officials to distribute federal funds meant to keep Vermonters from being evicted. 

It’s hard to know how many Vermonters face eviction.

Nearly 24% of Vermonters surveyed feared eviction in the next two months, according to a recent census survey. But the survey had a 20.9% margin of error because so few Vermonters — only 9,719 — were polled.

Another survey found that 12% to 13% of Vermonters, depending on the county, owed back rent.

But 3,751 Vermont households are supported by the Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance Program. That’s less than 5% of the estimated 80,235 rental households in Vermont.

Vermont has spent nearly $19 million of the $200 million in rental assistance authorized at the end of the Trump administration. After the expenses of running the program are deducted, 8.4% of the allocated funds have reached landlords or tenants. 

Vermont State Housing Authority Executive Director Kathleen Berk is on holiday. Housing Program Administrator Kelli Cheney did not respond to messages by phone and email requesting an interview.

Nationwide, 11% of the emergency rental assistance funds have been distributed.

Vermont’s eviction moratorium expired July 15.

The aid is meant to help tenants, and tenants must apply for it, but the money goes directly to their landlords. If landlords refuse to participate, the funds can go directly to tenants.

Ryan Murphy, Statewide Housing Navigator for the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, helps people apply for emergency rental assistance. She said it’s rare for landlords to refuse to participate.

“I’ve only had a couple of times when a landlord was not willing to participate in it,” she said. 

The aid is set up to pay past due rent and the next three months’ rent. It lasts for 12 months.

The federal aid went out in two programs. 

The first, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump between Christmas and Jan. 1, was only for people who could show that their employment was affected by the pandemic. Vermont was authorized to spend $200 million under that program.

The second program, part of the American Rescue Plan Act signed by President Joe Biden, did not have any restrictions requiring people to prove the pandemic was cutting into their income. Vermont was authorized to spend $152 million under that program. 

The Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance program, which is supposed to get those federal funds to landlords and utility companies to protect tenants, got off to a slow start but has been accelerating. 

Federal restrictions put in place to verify that money was going to help tenants with the lowest incomes have slowed down the disbursement of funds.

Initially, in Vermont, there were challenges for people who did not speak English, said Chris Donnelly, director of community relations at the Champlain Housing Trust. 

Another hitch as the program got under way: Renters had to upload their paycheck stubs. Some people tried to use their phones to do this, and it did not work.

“People are attempting to apply from smart phones that are several years old,” Murphy said. “I’ve spent a good amount of time helping people scan something into their iPhone Notes [app] so they can upload it.”

As of Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury Department made it easier for renters to apply. It recommended that states allow renters to self-certify income without having to provide proof such as paycheck stubs. 

The Vermont Housing Authority has yet to decide whether to adopt the more user-friendly procedure. 

At first, there were problems with software in Vermont.

“There have been some issues,” Murphy said. “There has also been a good amount of improvement,” she adds. 

Another problem: The system requires email addresses, and many renters do not have an email address.

Murphy said she creates a free email account for clients on Yahoo or Gmail. 

She said she can help people get through the application process quickly.

“I can usually get somebody through an application in under 30 minutes,” Murphy said. “My record is 15.”

Murphy said her clients’ main concern is how long it will take their landlord to get the payment. She advises them that if next month’s rent is due within days, they should make that payment themselves if they have the funds.

The other reaction she gets is skepticism. 

“People find it hard to believe that the government will pay 12 months of [their] rent with no catch,” Ryan said.

One landlord has taken extra steps to help tenants navigate the application process. 

The Champlain Housing Trust, which has more than 2,500 rental households, sent out hard copies of applications and received permission to create online accounts for its tenants, Donnelly said.

If evictions move forward, Vermont renters face bleak prospects at finding housing. The state’s housing shortage is likely to preclude many from finding another home.

That shortage is especially acute for low-income families.

“The housing in Vermont is so, so tight that even if somebody wants to leave their housing because they just can’t afford it anymore, they often don’t have another place to go,” Murphy said.

So far this year, the Champlain Housing Trust has received 1,500 applications for 50 vacancies, Donnelly said.

Landlords are unlikely to rent to tenants who have been evicted, which has led some tenants to leave before eviction notices are filed, Donnelly said.