Right out of law school and up until serving in the State Senate I had the honor and privilege of serving as a legal aid attorney with New Hampshire Legal Assistance for about a decade. There, I represented thousands of folks during the Great Recession, the last economic crisis, helping Granite Staters get access to health care, accessing unemployment insurance for those who were crushed by job loss, and representing people facing foreclosure from big Wall Street banks. For four years I managed the Housing Justice Project at New Hampshire Legal Assistance, overseeing the staff, casework, public trainings and outreach, and advocacy for fair housing, civil rights, and workforce and affordable housing.
Even before COVID-19, New Hampshire was facing a housing crisis. With vacancy rates well below 2%, some cities having 0% vacancy, and a national average of about 5% vacancy, people could not find places to live, and, if they did, prices were through the roof. It put New Hampshire at an economic and competitive disadvantage in the region, and the housing and homelessness challenges we face have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. With a sharp increase in unemployment in the state, many folks are struggling to pay their rent and make their mortgage payments. On top of this, our homeless population frequently resides in shelters that are not built for the social distancing safety recommendations of today, making it harder for them to stay healthy and virtually impossible to find jobs.
In short, housing is key to our economy and key to our recovery. Here are a few steps we can take to meet our homelessness and housing challenges, right now:
Homelessness: Helping our homeless populations avoid contracting or spreading COVID-19 is not just a humanitarian issue it is a major public health challenge that affects the entire State. For those living in crowded homeless shelters or without a place to go, it is virtually impossible to practice social distancing or meet the basic needs of living without risking either contracting COVID-19 or spreading it to someone else. All of the staff and volunteers who work at soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other care organizations are also at risk of getting or spreading COVID-19 because of the work they do and the frequent interactions they have on a daily basis.
As of yet, there is no comprehensive state homelessness plan for how to address the impact of COVID-19 on this population. Indeed, housing and homelessness services were recently cut by Governor Sununu to fund near term COVID-19 needs. Other states have issued safety guidance to their homeless shelters, have turned recreation centers into temporary housing, used empty hotel rooms to house the homeless residents, and introduced legislation to support homeless shelters in the state. In New Hampshire, our homeless shelters and nonprofit organizations are doing everything they can to provide services but there is only so much they can do without expanded assistance from the state. This crisis has only exacerbated the strain already on people who are experiencing homelessness and shelters and service agencies across the state are scrambling to figure out how to best serve the needs of people who are homeless.
We need to command resources; facilities, funding, medical and human services personnel, personal protective gear, and put local and regional solutions in place. We need to find places for homeless individuals who have tested positive, for those who show symptoms or have pending tests and need to safely quarantine, for those living in shelters who are highly vulnerable due to age and/or pre-existing medical conditions and need to be physically separated from others in shelters and address the needs of those in homeless shelters who are asymptomatic and could spread the virus due to crowded conditions.
In New Hampshire, all hotels and short-term rentals like Airbnb suspended non-essential accommodations which provides an opportunity for the state to partner with these businesses that are losing revenue due to a loss in occupancy. The state should establish a leasing agreement with local hotel operators to provide hotel rooms for those homeless individuals exposed to or with COVID-19 who don’t require hospital care but cannot safely stay at a shelter and for individuals who are high-risk demographically for COVID-19. Other states have implemented this program and have seen an outpouring of support from those in the hospitality industry to lend a hand and receive some help to support their business. Such an effort would minimize the impact on local property taxpayers as their municipal budgets typically cover homelessness costs.
Key Policy Suggestions:
- Stabilize and backfill Governor Sununu’s cut to housing and homelessness services with stimulus monies ($1.7 million; see p. 3 http://www.gencourt.state.nh.us/lba/Budget/FiscalItems/2020-04-10_Agenda_Items/FIS_20-065.pdf);
- Use stimulus funds to bolster shelter services and operations, as well as bolster homelessness services, including the rapid re-housing program ($2 million);
- Include shelters and soup kitchens in the essential services that receive state aid in acquiring PPE (~$300,000); and
- Establish and subsidize leasing agreements with local hotels/motels to ensure we have adequate space for those in need and we support the local hospitality industry ($1 million).
We must also address housing for those who are unable to pay their rent or mortgage due to unexpected COVID-19 costs and job loss. The best relief for landlords and tenants is that which enables tenants to pay their full rent on-time, which means there’s a strong connection between economic and jobs programs and a functioning housing market. Currently, no renter can be evicted simply because they are unable to pay their rent and homeowners cannot be foreclosed on; however, those protections expire when the emergency order is lifted leaving the potential for a significant uptick in evictions and foreclosures just as we are getting out of this crisis.
Similar to the job protections required in the federal Paycheck Protection Program, all direct relief to landlords should be conditional on the commitment to not to raise rents for one year (with exceptions for increases in property taxes and utility costs); to not evict any tenant for any financial reason; to accept tenants who have housing choice vouchers or other federal, state, and/or local rental assistance; and not issue an eviction notice for nonpayment of rent for 30 days after the state of emergency. Landlords, who are oftentimes family businesses, are hurting and we need to keep the housing stock on the market and the relief they receive with the above conditions should be significant and should at least capture lost rental payments during the time of the declared emergency.
The state should also consider direct rental assistance to low and moderate-income tenants who have lost income due to the COVID-19 crisis to be administered through community action agencies that already provide rental assistance. The aid should be prioritized so landlords who are hit hardest by the crisis such as non-profits and small landlords who are struggling to meet operating expenses get relief first.
We must protect not just renters, but homeowners crushed by COVID-19. Homeowners ought to have a fair shot to stay in their homes after the moratorium on foreclosures is lifted. That is why homeowners who were unable to pay their mortgages during the moratorium during COVID-19 should have that debt forgiven and mortgage servicers and/or banks must agree to not foreclose for a period of at least six months as well as engage in good faith negotiations on loan modifications reflecting the current circumstances of the family or household. We appreciate the work of our banks during this crisis, especially our community banks who have really stepped up to help homeowners and family businesses, and this proposal will help folks keep their homes and help banks retire debt.
As we look at smart investments we can make with the federal unrestricted stimulus funds, we should invest in affordable and workforce housing units. This would add construction jobs back into the economy, which could be started immediately. It would help address the affordable housing crisis we faced before COVID-19 and will continue to face after. And it would provide a return on investment because ultimately tenants would be paying rent or vouchers back to the state.
In short, we need to keep our existing stock in the market and we need to expand the supply, immediately. Here are just a few ideas to begin to address this crisis:
Key Policy Suggestions:
- Provide conditional relief to landlords, at least covering lost rental payments during the emergency, contingent upon strong tenant protections ($15 million);
- Direct support for homeowners facing foreclosure ($25 million);
- Expand rental assistance programs that are already in effect ($5 million); and
- Use at least $25 million in stimulus funds to immediately capitalize the affordable housing fund (RSA 204-C:57) of New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority, with priority given to hardest-hit areas.
Folks across New Hampshire are struggling to stay safe, to social distance, and to pay their bills under these unprecedented circumstances. It is up to the state to partner with outside organizations and come up with solutions and find a way to solve the problems that arise, from protecting our homeless populations to addressing our housing crisis so Granite Staters aren’t evicted in the midst of a pandemic. It is critical that during these unprecedented moments that all of us come together and advocate for our most vulnerable populations, for jobs, for housing, for all of us.
Finally, the operation of this New Hampshire’s Housing Recovery Fund should be subject to the oversight and accountability of the Fiscal Committee, and an analysis of the further need in each area shall be performed by August 1, 2020, to determine what additional support each area above may need.