Rent's due

With a $35 million rental-assistance program set to expire at the end of the month, local housing advocates are scrambling to make funding alternatives available to people still experiencing financial instability.

The state’s Housing Relief Program, created by Gov. Chris Sununu in June, has helped renters who fell or risked falling behind on their monthly fees due to financial challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Recipients were awarded either a one-time grant of up to $2,500 or repeating payments to help them maintain or even secure permanent housing.

But the relief will no longer be available next year, since the federal CARES Act funds that back the program are set to expire Dec. 30.

Beth Daniels, chief operating officer at Southwestern Community Services, said the state has given her agency — one of five in New Hampshire distributing the Housing Relief Program aid — until Jan. 15 to send its final payments. Renters must apply by Friday to receive aid, she noted.

SCS, which serves residents of Cheshire and Sullivan counties, had approved rent relief totaling more than $1.6 million as of Dec. 10, according to an organization report from that date. That figure comprised 511 completed payments, with staff reviewing another 345 requests for aid at the time.

SCS anticipates spending about $625,000 in additional payments through the Housing Relief Program, Daniels told The Sentinel in an email Monday.

Together, the state’s five community action agencies had distributed more than $9 million through the program as of Dec. 10, she said, estimating that number could rise by as much as $4 million before its expiration.

Daniels expressed disappointment that the Dec. 30 deadline to spend CARES Act funds has remained in place, arguing the Housing Relief Program has helped thousands of people avoid “catastrophe.” The program’s expiration is particularly concerning, she said, given the pandemic is still a full-fledged health crisis and infection rates in New Hampshire recently reached new highs.

“The assistance that was put into place absolutely, positively had a wide-reaching impact on vulnerable households,” she said. “… It would just be nice to see this [pandemic] through to the end with the resources that were originally put in place.”

And with all remaining unpaid rent due next month after the Dec. 31 expiration of a national evictions moratorium, renters with financial instability could risk losing their homes, according to Daniels.

“It’s hard to [reconcile] that a program is ending the day before the evictions moratorium is lifted while I know there’s still millions available,” she said.

Other resources will remain available for people struggling with housing expenses, however.

SCS will continue distributing relief through its energy-assistance programs, the state’s Emergency Solutions Grants for homelessness prevention and its own fund that offers no-interest loans to help renters afford their security deposit and first month’s rent, according to Daniels. If necessary, the agency is also prepared to identify emergency-housing opportunities at its own shelters, as well as at Hundred Nights Inc. in Keene.

But those options are much more limited than the Housing Relief Program, Daniels said. SCS’ no-interest loan program, known as the Homeless Housing Access Revolving Loan Fund, had $30,000 available as of Dec. 10.

“What we have … doesn’t even equal one week’s check run [for the Housing Relief Program],” she said.

As a result, Daniels explained that SCS will likely refer many renters to their municipal welfare offices for assistance.

The city of Keene is prepared to offer rent and utilities relief to anyone who demonstrates need, regardless of whether it relates to the pandemic, according to Human Services Manager Natalie Darcy.

Darcy said the city has already helped many people afford those expenses this year, adding that requests for assistance — which can be filed in-person at City Hall or online — have increased recently.

“Somebody may need part of their rent … or they may need help keeping the lights on,” she said Tuesday. “Now that a lot of money has dried up, there is a lot of demand.”

Up to approximately $800 per month is available for individuals living in a one-bedroom apartment, and that number increases for each additional tenant, according to Darcy. And even if the Human Service Department exceeds its budget, which Darcy said it has not this year, state law requires they provide assistance, she said.

Daniels is still hopeful that additional relief for renters is on the way, also expressing sympathy for landlords who have lost income from unpaid rent. In the meantime, she said, SCS is taking solace from having helped hundreds of people remain afloat this year.

“We’re building a history that I’m able to hold up to staff and say, ‘Did you ever think you’d help this many households in this amount of time?’ “

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