Eviction notice

Evictions in New Hampshire have ticked up, slightly but steadily, in the months since federal rules designed to keep people housed during the COVID-19 pandemic ended in August.

With the recent swell, the statewide rate — which topped 56 evictions per week that month, the highest mark in nearly a year — is edging closer to pre-pandemic levels, according to data published by the N.H. Judicial Branch. That trend is playing out in area communities, too, as evictions in Cheshire County have increased markedly in recent months, the data show.

But housing advocates — including those who warned of a crisis once the federal protections lapsed — say a slate of financial and legal resources for tenants have helped stave off a worst-case scenario.

Those resources, which include federal relief for renters in need and new initiatives meant to keep eviction cases of court, “have made a really, really big difference as bad as those [eviction] numbers are,” according to Elliott Berry of the Concord-based nonprofit N.H. Legal Assistance.

Evictions in the state, which often topped 70 per week before the pandemic, had fallen to about half that number over the past year under the federal eviction moratorium. That policy, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention established in September 2020, protected certain tenants — based on income level and their vulnerability to homelessness — who were unable to pay rent on time or at all.

Those rules expired in July, though, putting a “meaningful number” of renters at immediate risk of eviction, Berry, who directs NHLA’s Housing Justice Project, said at the time. A subsequent effort by the Biden administration to reinstate the eviction ban, on a limited basis, was struck down by the Supreme Court in August.

Eviction filings — landlord petitions in court to remove a tenant — rose to nearly 80 per week in New Hampshire that month and have continued climbing since then, the Judicial Branch data show.

After spiking in August, the weekly eviction rate has hovered around 50 for the past two full months, according to the data. And locally, Cheshire County circuit courts in Keene and Jaffrey approved 15 total evictions last month — the most since October 2020.

Berry said Wednesday the eviction rate has clearly risen since the federal moratorium ended. But evictions prompted by tenants’ failure to pay rent may not be the only factor behind that trend, he said.

In many cases, Berry said, people are being forced out because their landlord wants to — or at least claims they want to — renovate the property. That can allow the landlord to remove a tenant for whom they don’t care, even if that person can afford rent, he said.

“I think it’s being used as a way to get around having to prove that there’s just cause for eviction,” he said. “It’s an easy thing to allege and hard to disprove. That concerns me a lot.”

Berry said those cases are anecdotal so far, since nobody in the state tracks the grounds for eviction claims, but that he’s hearing of more of those instances than ever before.

If a tenant is struggling to pay rent, area landlords have typically been willing to help them cure any obligations before turning to eviction, according to Beth Daniels, CEO of the social-service provider Southwestern Community Services.

Daniels, whose organization covers Cheshire and Sullivan counties, said there’s been a large spike in requests for housing assistance — including money to cover rent and utilities, as well as space in an emergency shelter — in recent months. Calling the issue of housing insecurity “more acute than it’s ever been,” she said SCS can help prevent eviction but finds it hard to assist people who are already homeless due to a lack of available housing in the Monadnock Region.

“All the financial resources in the world won’t matter if we don’t have anywhere to put people,” she said.

Chief among those resources is the state’s $200 million Emergency Rental Assistance program, a federal relief effort launched in March to help tenants resolve back rent and ensure a stable living situation going forward.

The program, which had disbursed nearly a quarter of those funds as of early October, when the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery last updated that data, is “saving thousands of people from being on the street,” according to Berry.

Southwestern Community Services, one of five agencies distributing that relief throughout the state, has approved about $5 million for renters in local communities, Daniels said Thursday. The emergency rental assistance program is expected to last through next year.

That aid could reach even more people before then, Daniels said, after eligibility for the program widened last month to include anyone who has faced financial hardship during the pandemic. (It was previously available only to people struggling for reasons due directly to the pandemic.) And tenants are now eligible to get up to 18 months’ worth of relief, she noted — up from the previous 15-month limit.

“I think between those two [changes], more folks will be able to get assistance … for a longer period of time,” she said. “So that’s good.”

Daniels encouraged renters and homeowners to visit www.homehelpnh.org for more information on the financial assistance available to them.

She and Berry also credited a number of steps being taken by New Hampshire courts to protect tenants, including a voluntary option for mediation rather than traditional eviction proceedings.

The new statewide program, which builds off pilot initiatives launched in Concord and Claremont courts earlier this year, involves a neutral third party who can help resolve landlord-tenant disputes before they go to trial. The parties reached an agreement in more than 70 percent of cases in those pilot locations, court officials have said.

Even in mediation cases, which in most courts must be requested before a formal eviction case begins, Berry said it’s important for tenants to know their rights.

“I worry, too often, that mediation can become simply where the players — the tenant, the landlord and the mediator — kind of believe that it’s only a question of when the tenant’s going to leave, not if,” he said. “If it’s done with that unspoken assumption, that’s problematic.”

But recent efforts to involve housing advocates in landlord-tenant disputes have helped allay those concerns, Berry said.

Those include an initiative by the Manchester circuit court to schedule all eviction cases on the same day each week, he said. That has made it easier for staff from N.H. Legal Assistance and the local community action agency to refer at-risk tenants for financial relief and get their cases delayed or dismissed. The court in Nashua plans to start handling eviction cases the same way in December, Berry said.

“I think the court system is trying really hard to respond to [the rise in evictions],” he said.

A similar effort is underway in the Monadnock Region, where the courts now share their weekly docket with Southwestern Community Services each Monday so the organization knows when it would be helpful to have someone at the courthouse, according to Daniels.

She did not know as of Thursday if local courts will adopt the new scheduling tactic used in Manchester but wasn’t ruling it out.

“We may not need it as much in this area right away,” Daniels said. “… But there could come a day when it makes more sense for our staff member to be at the court rather than in the office.”

Caleb Symons can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1420, or csymons@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @CalebSymonsKS.