Like many communities nationwide, southwestern New Hampshire braced for a possible housing crisis in late August.
Unemployment remained unusually high due to the COVID-19 pandemic, short-term policies protecting Granite Staters from eviction had expired, and an unprecedented number of renters were seeking financial assistance from the region’s community action agency, according to its chief operating officer. Eviction cases in the New Hampshire court system spiked in August, after state and federal bans on evictions lapsed, with housing experts predicting even more to come.
A temporary evictions moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month may have prevented further homelessness, experts say. Still, despite disagreeing about its value, advocates for both tenants and landlords maintain the moratorium does not itself relieve their clients’ financial woes.
Under the CDC order, tenants who meet certain criteria can give their landlord a signed declaration that protects them from eviction. Among the conditions to qualify, tenants must be unable to pay their full rent due to “substantial loss of household income” or several other factors; make efforts to pay rent on time, including by trying to obtain publicly available financial assistance; and expect to earn no more than $99,000 in 2020 or have received a $1,200 stimulus check as part of the federal CARES Act.
The order went into effect Sept. 4 and will expire at the end of December. Landlords will be permitted to ask tenants for any back rent in January 2021.
Beth Daniels, chief operating officer at Southwestern Community Services, the community action agency for Cheshire and Sullivan counties, said the order may lead disadvantaged renters to contact SCS for financial relief, given its requirement that they exhaust all possible resources to claim protection from eviction.
“I’m hoping this moratorium encourages people to look for assistance to keep the [regional housing] situation from snowballing,” she said on Sept. 11.
Daniels added that tenants’ requests for financial relief from SCS remains high but has not yet shown evidence of additional interest based on the CDC order. She encouraged renters to save records of their income and expenses, which she said helps SCS and other organizations process requests for assistance.
The order, which CDC Director Robert Redfield signed on Sept. 1, asserts that “In the context of a pandemic, eviction moratoria … can be an effective public health measure utilized to prevent the spread of communicable disease.”
Jeffrey Turk, a Massachusetts-based attorney who represents residential and commercial landlords in New Hampshire and several other states, criticized the order for failing to directly address tenants’ financial instability.
“If we, as a society, agree that homelessness would be a bad thing, normally we resolve such issues through the government providing some sort of funding relief,” he said.
Turk added that rent assistance would help renters as well as landlords, many of whom he said have lost several months’ worth of income while their tenants struggled to afford rent during the pandemic but were protected from eviction.
“Individual landlords are really facing the brunt of this,” he said. “Landlords didn’t cause COVID and yet, for some reason, the burden is being put on [them] to basically fund these tenants.”
Granite State renters lost one source of protection when Gov. Chris Sununu’s emergency order banning evictions, issued on March 17, expired on July 1. Nearly one in 10 workers in Cheshire County was unemployed due to COVID-related reasons at that time, according to N.H. Employment Security.
Later that month, a national moratorium on evictions for tenants living at properties that receive federal assistance — established as part of the CARES Act — also expired. The federal policy prohibited landlords from evicting tenants for an additional 30 days after its July 25 termination.
Eviction-related cases in the N.H. Circuit Court system increased almost immediately.
Landlords filed 180 and 193 claims of unpaid rent during the first two weeks in August, respectively — both of which exceeded the number filed for any other week this year. The 8th Circuit Court, which covers Cheshire County, received 17 claims in those two weeks, after receiving nine from March 23 to June 26.
With the loss of emergency protections for renters, some of those claims produced evictions. The 8th Circuit Court issued a single writ of possession — the court order that allows a landlord to lawfully evict a tenant — during the aforementioned 14-week period. It issued 31 in the following 10 weeks.
Elliott Berry, an attorney and director of the Housing Project at N.H. Legal Assistance, predicted on Aug. 28 that evictions would continue to escalate.
“I expect the numbers to rise significantly for a good while,” he said. “I do think September is likely to be the worst of it.”
Before the CDC order went into effect, Daniels said considerable interest in Southwestern Community Services’ financial assistance programs indicated that many renters were concerned about being able to afford housing-related costs.
She noted that SCS had received about 800 inquiries into its housing relief program, which offers financial assistance for tenants who lost income or owed increased housing expenses due to COVID-19, as of Sept. 1. Daniels said at the time that the organization had disbursed more than $400,000 from that program, which is funded by the federal CARES Act, to about one-quarter of the applicants and expected to approve payments to a few hundred more.
“To see 800 households apply [for], or at least ask questions about, a new program … for housing and homelessness, specifically, that’s more than we’ve ever seen in a two-month period,” she said on Sept. 1.
Daniels also noted that demands for relief through SCS’ fuel and electric assistance programs, which she said typically help a combined 5,000 households each year, would likely reach unprecedented levels in the coming months.
She acknowledged that the CDC order delays, rather than eliminates, housing-related obligations through the end of the year. However, Daniels noted that its qualification criteria, in addition to financial relief available to tenants through the CARES Act, mean landlords may continue to receive at least partial payments before January 2021.
“I’m assuming that one of the reasons [policymakers] felt comfortable moving forward with that federal moratorium was because they knew there was still … assistance available,” she said.
But Turk explained it will be difficult for landlords to prove that a tenant falsely claiming they are safe from eviction did not, in fact, satisfy the CDC criteria. He added that the punishments for violating the order — which could rise to a $250,000 fine, if an unlawful eviction causes the former tenant’s death, and up to a year in jail — will effectively prevent landlords from contesting a tenant’s declaration.
“The penalties are beyond anything I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It’s going to be very scary for a landlord to go in and try to challenge the tenant on those things.”
Turk said multiple landlords have asked him whether they should simply leave units vacant in an effort to avoid tenant-related expenses for which they may not be compensated until next year. He noted that others are deferring renovations and various improvements, due to lost income from rent payments, which he said will hurt trade industries.
To prevent those spillover effects, Turk encouraged public officials to fund rent relief for tenants.
“Nobody wants to evict anyone,” he said. “Instead of coming up with a way to assist people in paying their rent … we’re kicking the can down the road and imposing the burdens on private landlords.”