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EXPLAINER: Can rent aid avert eviction crisis in Vermont?

June 25, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo, housing activists erect a sign in Swampscott, Mass. A federal freeze on most evictions is set to expire soon. 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. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo, housing activists erect a sign in Swampscott, Mass. A federal freeze on most evictions is set to expire soon. 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. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire July 31, after the Biden administration extended the 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 more than $45 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.

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

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As of June 7, roughly 3.2 million people in the U.S. 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.

Here’s the situation Vermont:

WHAT’S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?

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. For cases of a breach of a rental agreement, the evictions could proceed immediately. For all other evictions, including nonpayment of rent and no-cause evictions, landlords would have been able to proceed after July 15. It’s unclear how the federal extension will affect Vermont.

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.

While there are funds available, Vermont Public Radio reports that only 16% of the just over 3,000 applications submitted to the state have received funds.

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HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

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

The courts were already understaffed, but Vermont State Rep. Tom Stevens, a Democrat who is the 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 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 4.1% 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 $22.78 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment, but the average Vermont renter earns $13.40 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 June showing more than 9,500 state residents are concerned that they could face eviction over the next two months.

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This story has been updated to correct that state Rep. Tom Stevens is the chair of the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs, not the vice chair.