As of October, there are 6,780 applicants waiting for affordable housing through the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority. The majority of them will wait 7-9 years for subsidized housing.
Many other families are newly housing-insecure after pandemic job-loss undermined their fragile ability to pay rent. While there is currently a federal moratorium on evictions, housing experts are concerned that come January — when that expires — there will be a wave of new families facing eviction and homelessness in the height of the New Hampshire winter.
“I’m really nervous about what’s to come,” said Stephanie Savard, director of the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homeless.
Issues around homelessness and affordable housing are not new to the Granite State. In January 2019 there were nearly 1,400 people — including 206 families — experiencing homelessness on any given day. Since the pandemic, more families have been reaching out to homeless shelters around the state, indicating a likely increase in homelessness. Although data is not yet available about how the pandemic has affected the number of homeless Granite Staters, experts say it’s likely the number has increased.
“The pandemic exacerbated what we already knew,” Savard said. “It’s really forcing the state and community back together to say what are we going to do about it, because it can’t be ignored.”
The scope of the problem
It’s widely accepted in the United States that paying 30 percent of one’s gross income toward housing is the maximum advisable, said Phil Sletten, senior policy analyst with the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute.
“That’s a common benchmark for affordability,” he said.
But in New Hampshire, 47 percent of renters pay 30 percent of their income or more, according to 2019 data from The Census Bureau. That indicates that there is little available on the rental market — something that could be made worse by out-of-staters moving to New Hampshire because of the pandemic.
Although there’s no updated data to reflect the impact of the pandemic, Sletten expects that the percentage of renters paying more than 30 percent of their income has risen.
“Because the pandemic has had such a profound impact on the finances of individuals, the scope of the concern now has only widened dramatically,” he said.
Census Bureau data from September showed that nearly 24 percent of Granite Staters reported having difficulty paying their normal household expenses because of the pandemic. If people begin to fall behind on their rent, they could face eviction when the federal eviction ban lapses.
“That would be January, which is a particularly cold time of year to face eviction in New Hampshire,” Sletten said.
Although January is months away, there’s another timeline at play. The state must use funding from the The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) by December 30. On that date, unspent funds must be returned to the federal government.
The state could use funds to provide relief to tenants — and therefore landlords — to help avoid widespread evictions in the New Year. But that policy would have to be enacted soon, Sletten said.
“The state, should it decide to provide aid to tenants and landlords… the window for that is closing,” Sletten said.
A need for more affordable housing units
The New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority (NHHFA) — with its waitlist of more than 6,700 applicants — is just one of 11 public housing agencies in New Hampshire that administer the Housing Choice Voucher program, also known as Section 8, which is funded through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The program allows low-income individuals to pay 30 percent of their income toward rent. HUD covers the rest of the rent, so that landlords still get market rate.
There are 10,894 units that accept Housing Choice Vouchers in the state, according to NHHFA, but that’s simply not enough. To be eligible for the program, a family must make less than 50 percent of the median income for their county. In 2019, median family income in New Hampshire was $97,112, while 20 percent of the state’s 541,396 households have a family income of less than $50,000.
While there are nuances to qualifying for a Housing Choice voucher, it’s clear that there is a need much higher than 11,000 units, or even double that. This aligns with federal research that indicates three of four renters who qualify for subsidies don’t get them because of funding limitations.
NHHFA has staff that works directly with current and prospective landlords in the state, according to spokesperson Grace Lessner. Despite the fact that landlords on the program still get market rate for their units, there’s still stigma at play that can prevent landlords from renting to people with housing vouchers, Savard said.
“It’s difficult to get landlords to take the chance on renting to someone with Section 8 vouchers, even though it’s guaranteeing them income monthly,” she said.
In addition to attracting more landlords to the program, the state needs to motivate builders to focus on affordable housing, through programs like tax incentives.
“One of the things we need to focus on is how do we create incentives for developers to build affordable housing?” Savard said. “What are we going to do to not only build it, but make it sustainable for the long term?”
A year that was meant to address homelessness
When Savard thinks about efforts to end homelessness, she envisions four issues that need to be addressed. First, there’s the extremely tight housing market, which can make it difficult to even find a home to rent. Then, there’s what she sees as insufficient rental assistance. Next, there’s the need for eviction prevention — education, mediation and support that can help families or individuals at the first sign of trouble paying the rent. Finally, there must be more case support for people who are at risk of homelessness.
“Getting a home is a first step, then we’ve got to help them maintain it long term,” she said. Case management — which can include jobs services, mental health supports and financial literacy programs — can help with that.
The 2020-2021 state budget allocated funds to all of those areas.
“I don’t think anybody would say it was the solution, but it was a step in the right direction,” she said.
The budget allocated $5 million a year from the General Fund surplus to the Affordable Housing Fund. The trust fund, administered by the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority, provides grants and low-interest loans to develop affordable housing — one of the incentives that Savard said is important.
Although the fund was established in 1988, contributions have “been generally small and intermittent,” according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The current budget calls for $5 million a year, coming from Real Estate Transfer Tax, to be dedicated to the fund, a significant policy shift.
“This was a very significant state budget for housing and housing supports,” Sletten said. “This was definitely a budget that reflects an awareness among policymakers and a desire to make meaningful changes to try to combat the really constrained housing market in New Hampshire.”
The budget also allocated $2 million for eviction prevention; $1 million for rapid-rehousing programs, which are meant to prevent families or individuals from becoming homeless; $400,000 for outreach to homeless youth; and $1 million for case management, something Savard said is important to homeless individuals.
However, the pandemic has delayed — and possibly interrupted — the funding of homelessness relief programs.
“It was a start in the right direction,” Savard said. “Then the pandemic hit, so those funds haven’t been released.”
(The Governor’s office referred an inquiry about whether and when these funds would be released to the Department of Health and Human Services. HHS did not respond to multiple inquiries.)
Learning from our neighbors
Renee Weeks, the director of shelter and clinical services at Upper Valley Haven in White River Junction, Vermont, works with both Vermont and New Hampshire. She sees a difference in how the two states approached homelessness and homelessness prevention, especially during the pandemic.
“Vermont was very responsive and resourceful,” she said. “I don’t know if New Hampshire was that responsive and resourceful.”
Vermont enacted a hotel voucher program meant to keep families and individuals housed when shelters needed to reduce capacity to allow for social distancing. The program allowed families to pay 30 percent of their income toward a hotel stay, with the state covering the rest, Weeks said. There’s not something similar in New Hampshire, Weeks said. Vermont also used CARES funding to give organizations like The Haven supplemental grants to support the increased demand for services brought about by the pandemic.
“We’ve added capacity thanks to funding through the state of Vermont,” Weeks said.
Vermont also has an after-hours program that can put homeless individuals in a hotel immediately.
“If the police come across someone at 10 p.m. and they have no place to stay, Vermont has a system where they call 211 and they can approve a hotel room until that person can get longer-term approval,” said Weeks.
There’s no state-wide program in New Hampshire although some towns, including Lebanon, have limited after-hours services “for emergencies, so people don’t freeze,” Weeks said.
A hope for more collaboration
The experts who spoke to the Collaborative said that New Hampshire has finally become serious about addressing issues of homelessness and housing insecurity. They just hope that the pandemic — with its massive costs, increased economic impact and anticipated budget shortfall — won’t cause the challenges to become worse.
“It’s like two steps forward, 100 steps back,” said Savard. “It’s so frustrating because it’s nobody’s fault.”
While the pandemic brought an infusion of federal funds into the state through the CARES Act, Savard said it’s going to take more than that to address homelessness and housing insecurity, she said.
“We can get all the money in the world, but it’s going to take collaboration,” Savard said. “With all these potential solutions, it’s going to take all of our community and all sectors — business people, nonprofits, housing developers, landlords, government — all working together to say that every citizen deserves to live in a safe and affordable home.”
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.