In recent months, the Brattleboro select board has been debating a draft ordinance to bar landlords from requiring tenants to pay the last month’s rent when they sign a lease. Proponents, led by the Tenants Union of Brattleboro, argue the measure would improve housing affordability by limiting the up-front costs of signing a lease to, in effect, two month’s rent — the first month’s rent and a security deposit equal to a month’s rent. Others, including some landlords, oppose the measure, saying it would lead landlords to rent only to wealthier tenants and thereby reduce housing accessibility for low-income renters.
The debate is instructive on several levels, not least because it highlights the inevitable intersection of efforts to address housing instability and homelessness with the need for increased affordable housing. Vermonters backing the ordinance might find it surprising, perhaps, that New Hampshire takes a more progressive approach on the issue, as it does not allow landlords to require up front a last-month’s payment as well as a security deposit. But for more affordable housing to become available, there have to be sufficient incentives and protections for landlords as well. Thus, in debating the ordinance, Brattleboro is also studying some alternative housing-affordability measures, such as a town-operated risk mitigation fund, that might address landlord concerns about inadequate security deposits while easing financial burdens on renters.
The search for alternative measures is also relevant here in New Hampshire as the state embarks on a retooled effort to address homelessness that will need to create additional affordable housing. The renewed approach was given a strong push in early November, when the mayors of the state’s 13 cities, including Keene’s George Hansel, sent Gov. Chris Sununu a letter urging the state to develop a comprehensive statewide strategy to address an already-existing homelessness crisis that the COVID-19 pandemic has made more serious. Without a plan, the mayors stated, cities and other large municipalities are bearing more than their share of the statewide burden of homelessness, and the lack of coordination among communities has led housing insecurity strategies to be “reactive rather than proactive.”
The governor responded quickly and positively, and on Nov. 18 reconstituted an existing state homelessness council as the Council on Housing Stability, tasking it with recommending not only a comprehensive update of the state’s 2006 homelessness plan, but also measures to address housing affordability and stability. Although he seemed a bit miffed, in his letter responding to the mayors, by any suggestion his administration hasn’t been supporting them on these issues, he was clear in articulating the seriousness of housing instability, stating that “it is a moral imperative, especially in the time of this pandemic, that we do more,” and emphasizing that a cornerstone of addressing it is increasing the state’s housing stock.
Sununu has given the council a tight window for making its initial recommendations. His executive order establishing the council mandates it must submit preliminary recommendations for next year’s legislative session to him by Dec. 14. That may be too tight a window, as he didn’t appoint the council’s members until Nov. 25 and its first meeting will be this Friday, Dec 5.
Still, this is an encouraging development. The council’s membership is very broad indeed and includes individuals who have experienced housing instability, officials from various state and local housing, education and social services agencies, legislators, mayors and representatives from New Hampshire’s landlord and builders associations. Among those named were Hansel and Andru Volinsky, the outgoing executive councilor for Keene and other parts of the region.
That breadth of membership bodes well for the task before the council. Making progress will require both increasing transitional and affordable housing options and improving access to services that can address mental health, substance abuse and other issues leading to housing insecurity. The diverse range of views should contribute to innovative proposals, such as those being debated in Brattleboro involving public-private initiatives.
As Sununu noted in his response to the mayors, homelessness has no quick fix, but this focused effort is a good start. We look forward to the council’s recommendations. It will then be up to the governor and the Legislature to put them into action.