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EXPLAINER: Can rent aid avert eviction crisis in Vermont?

(WCAX)
Published: Jul. 30, 2021 at 12:01 PM EDT
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A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire Saturday, after President Joe Biden’s administration extended the original date by a month.

The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on their rent.

Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access nearly $47 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.

Advocates for tenants said the distribution of the money had been slow and that more time was needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who were behind on their rents.

Even with the delay, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. as of July 5 said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.

WHAT’S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN VERMONT?

Vermont is one of several states that enacted its own moratorium last year halting eviction proceedings. The law, passed in May 2020, paused all evictions in Vermont until 30 days after the state of emergency was lifted. It was declared by Gov. Phil Scott in March 2020 to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. The state of emergency was allowed to expire on June 15, after the state reached its goal of vaccinating 80% of its eligible population. The Vermont eviction moratorium expired on July 15.

Vermont has seen little impact from the federal eviction moratorium, said Kathleen Berk, the executive director of the Vermont State Housing Authority. The federal moratorium only applied to nonpayment of rent situations and the tenant had to request coverage under the federal moratorium.

“For Vermont, that means tenants have started receiving court summons and eviction documents,” Berk said.

WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

On April 5, 2021, The Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance Program began administering $110 million for the Vermont State Housing Authority. It is accepting applications from tenants and landlords. Tenants can pay back rent to April 1, 2020, and utility bills that include electric, gas, fuel oil, wood and pellets. To qualify, a household must have an income at or below 80% of the median income for the area where they live. Landlords can be paid directly for both back and, in some cases, future rent.

As of July 28, 2,635 households, or just over 48% of the households that applied, had received a total of almost $11.9 million in assistance.

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

As the moratoriums ends, there is going to be a backlog of eviction cases in the court system.

In Vermont, eviction cases are handled like any other civil case, Berk said. Meaning that the tenants are served with a summons and complaint, the tenants then have 21 days to respond to the paperwork.

The soonest cases were served was July 19, so the 21-day period has not passed. For any case that requested a rent escrow hearing, those are being scheduled at the end of August and beginning of September.

“Pre-COVID, an eviction in Vermont would take three to four months from the time it was filed with the court,” Berk said. “This is not a fast process here.”

The courts were already understaffed, but Vermont State Rep. Tom Stevens, a Democrat who is chair of the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs, said he hoped the rental assistance programs will ease the strain on the courts and the evictions.

“Considering that upward of 75% of eviction cases pre-COVID-19 were about back rent, one would hope that the landlords and tenants would be able to work out a solution so they could both access this program, which is very, very generous,” Stevens said.

WHAT IS THE AFFORDABILITY IN THE STATE’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?

The pandemic made Vermont’s already tight housing market even tighter, with owners in some places converting their apartments into short-term rentals.

According to the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition, in 2018 the state had a 3.4% rental vacancy rate - the fifth-lowest in the country. Almost half of Vermont renters are “cost burdened,” meaning they pay more than 30% of their income for housing. The average Vermonter needs to earn $23.68 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment, but the average Vermont renter earns $13.83 an hour.

“We are not approaching a housing crisis, we have a housing crisis,” said Stevens.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

It’s hard to say how much homelessness will increase in Vermont. One indication of the scope of the problem is census data from early July showing residents of 626 Vermont households said they felt it was “very likely” they could be facing eviction within the next two months while 1,029 felt it was “somewhat likely” they could be facing eviction.

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