Renters who have lost income as a result of the pandemic can start applying now for $100 million in federal rental assistance to pay back rent, future rent, moving expenses and other costs.
The Vermont State Housing Authority plans to start publicizing the grant program on May 17, but renters can apply now on VSHA’s website. About 1,590 renters have already applied for about $8.2 million after learning about the program, said VSHA executive director Richard Williams. The money is sent directly to property owners.
The $100 million comes from a bill that the U.S. Congress passed December 27. States then spent several months studying the U.S. Treasury’s rules, which are markedly different from those for the $25 million rental assistance program that Vermont operated last year.
The money can be used for up to 18 months of back rent, future rent, or for moving to a better living situation, said Williams — including a security deposit and some relocation assistance.
Applicants must show proof of their income and prove that they suffered financial harm as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s only open to renters with incomes at 80 percent or below their area's median income; states have been directed to prioritize renters whose incomes are 50 percent of that amount.
Nobody knows exactly how many Vermont renters have missed payments or faced housing insecurity as a result of the pandemic and drastic changes to the job market. Renters who couldn’t keep up with their payments have been protected by federal and state eviction moratoriums, which are expected to end June 30 and around July 4, respectively.
Despite an array of assistance programs, “there are still a fair number of people who have really seen their income drop quite a bit,” said Burlington City Councilor Brian Pine (P-Ward 3), who works for the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition.
“What we don’t know — it is just almost impossible to get this number — is how many households have been making either no payment on rent or partial payments on rent, and just getting deeper and deeper in the hole,” Pine said. “What we do know is this money will be able to cover arrears, and that’s a huge, real positive aspect.”
VSHA received $110 million for the program and has been directed to spend no more than 10 percent of that sum on administration, Williams said.
Vermont housing advocates estimate the state has between 76,000 and 80,000 renter households. Approximately 50,000 households appear to be income-eligible for the new rental assistance program, Williams said.
Last year, the average payment under the CARES Act rental assistance program was $2,071. At that amount, serving all eligible households would cost just over $100 million.
Williams and Pine noted that the state has housing problems that one-time payments can't fix. Pine said about 25 percent of the state’s renter households pay half of their income or more to cover rent and utilities.
“If decisions at the federal level were made in support of the notion that housing is essential and basically a human right, we would have rental assistance for anyone who needs it,” Pine said.
In non-COVID times, VSHA’s biggest job is operating the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8 voucher program, which covers about 9,000 units of rental housing in Vermont. Only about 50 percent of the people who have vouchers have found eligible rental housing in Vermont, said Williams, who is retiring May 29. VSHA is putting out more than 500 new vouchers this year.
“The challenge will be, can people find housing that meets all the housing quality standards that go along with the Section 8 housing choice voucher program?” Williams said.
A bill before the Vermont legislature’s House Ways and Means Committee, S.79, contains several measures aimed at improving rental housing regulation and safety, including a registry that would make it easier for state officials to reach landlords, something Williams said would help with administration of the latest program.
And lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott are hoping to put millions of dollars from Vermont’s most recent federal COVID-19 relief allocation toward the construction of new housing units.
“The $100 million in rental assistance is intended to be a stopgap measure; some would call it a Band-Aid,” Pine said. “But sometimes you really do need a Band-Aid.”