The federal moratorium on housing evictions will extend through March, but it’s unknown when the $200 million in emergency relief funds earmarked for New Hampshire will become available to tap – a bounty that could help save low-income renters and their landlords facing ongoing rent shortfalls.

According to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, the state has not yet received the official award notice that will start the next round of housing relief, or guidelines on when and how that money will be distributed.

In the meantime, low-income tenants at risk of losing their homes should stay in contact with local community action programs and welfare departments for ways to bridge the gap, said Elliott Berry, co-director of the Housing Justice Program at New Hampshire Legal Assistance.

“There’s not a lot of help now for people who require rental assistance, but these people may still be connected with other sources of aid,” said Berry.

For assistance through upcoming federal funding, “the important factor is whether there’s been a substantial loss of income due to COVID,” Berry said. “Unfortunately, a lot of people are facing eviction where COVID wasn’t a significant factor.”

The new rental assistance program will have eligibility guidelines and procedures that differ from COVID assistance in the past. The federal money will be limited to families who earn 80 percent or less than the median income in their counties. In Belknap County, that translates to $61,450 for a family of three, and $68,350 for a family of four. Statewide, priority will be given to people who earn 50 percent or less than the county median – which is $38,400 for a three-person family, and $42,250 for a four-person family in Belknap County. The program will also serve renters who are eligible for unemployment insurance payments.

Landlords will be able to apply on behalf of their tenants, who must prove eligibility and provide documentation. As in the past, payments will be made directly to landlords. Under the new rules, money may be available to pay for past due, current and future rent – up to a year going forward, which can be requested every three months, Berry said.

”The combination of the moratorium and the emergency assistance program will go a long way to prevent homelessness,” he said. “Given the lack of affordable housing, that could be a godsend to thousands of New Hampshire households.”

Among the public, misconceptions persist on how the eviction process, the stay on evictions and rent compensation works – the steps and eligibility requirements. That may affect how many people end up getting help, and how much of the fund is ultimately used.

Local community programs can help demystify the process, and New Hampshire Legal Aid is offering free weekly online eviction clinics through the end of February. For a link to the Wednesday sessions go to nhla.org.

NHLA and LARC, the Legal Advice and Referral Center in Concord, also offers free personal legal advice and representation to lower-income renters who qualify based on earnings, the poverty rate in their county and the number of people in their household.

 “Every case is an application of facts specific to the case and an application of the law to those facts,” said Berry. The important thing is to reach out for help as soon as you get an eviction notice, because the process moves fast, he added.

Housing laws and procedures have morphed during COVID, and tenants and landlords often need help navigating a system that is a complicated at best, involving a lineup of legal documents, filings with deadlines, and court proceedings that are held by phone.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court recently ruled that no matter how long someone has lived in a hotel room, they are not considered residents with tenant rights under New Hampshire law, said Berry – which affects people who have been housed in motels long-term when shelters and other options haven’t been available.

Some landlords try to circumvent the moratorium meant to protect tenants.

“We’re seeing a lot of evictions right now from landlords wanting to sell or renovate the property, as a way to get around the eviction moratorium, and as a way to raise rent,” Berry said. Lease violations that may have been ignored in the past – such as the presence of pets or long-term guests, are also more like to be cited as cause for tenant removal, he said.

“It’s very important to get your hands on the lease to make sure that what you’re accused of is really a violation,” Berry said.  Landlords often attempt to impose late fees or attorney fees when those provisions are not in the lease document, and therefore can’t be collected by law.

“A lot of times tenants have many grievances, but if the eviction is for non-payment of rent, those grievances may be irrelevant,” said Berry. Insufficient landlord services or building maintenance, including lapsed repairs, are seldom seen by the court as grounds for withholding rent, he said.

Before an eviction hearing, it’s important to figure out a legal defense and present only relevant reasons for requesting more time, Berry said. Landlords can usually make a “pay and stay” agreement in court, in which they agree on how much a tenant will pay weekly or monthly by a certain date, he said.

At the judge’s discretion, tenants facing eviction may be given up to 90 days to stay before a landlord officially takes possession – which may be critical for finding alternative housing, even if the solution is only temporary, such a moving in with relatives.

Regardless of the outcome,  you will still owe unpaid rent, or the difference between what the landlord has received in government assistance on your behalf, and the amount stated in your lease, or what the landlord has agreed to accept. The moratorium simply prevents qualified renters from being removed by a sheriff.

“For the record, you still owe the money,” Berry said. “Just because you’re being evicted doesn’t mean you don’t owe rent while you’re there.  If there’s a chance you’ll win the eviction, keep paying,” Berry said.  Otherwise it might make sense to use the money you have to secure your next, more affordable place.  

According to court records, the number of evictions granted has dropped significantly during the moratoriums. According to the New Hampshire Judicial Branch’s weekly reports, no writs of possession, or court-approved evictions, were issued by the 4th Circuit Court – Laconia District  between March 16 and June 25, 2020. The number jumped to 104 between the end of June and January 1, 2021, reflecting patterns across the state.  In the 10 days between January 11 and 22, six writs of possession were issued in the Laconia court.

Requests for assistance have increased over the course of the pandemic. According to the Division of Economic and Housing Stability of the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, rent and mortgage assistance from the Housing Relief Fund administered by the state’s community action programs rose from $494,000 at the end of July to $9.8 million by December 21, 2020, with over 3,255 people served statewide.

•••

The Sunshine Project is underwritten by grants from the Endowment for Health, New Hampshire’s largest health foundation, and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. Roberta Baker can be reached by email at Roberta@laconiadailysun.com

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