| Portsmouth Herald
Jessica Marino says her story is one of desperation.
For much of the past couple of years, Marino says desperation has guided her decisions as she has clawed through trauma and unsafe situations in pursuit of stability for her 9-year-old son, Sam.
“A lot of times, the decisions we make when we make them out of desperation are not going to be good choices because you’re sort of just grasping at something,” she said. “You’re trying to paddle upstream with nothing.”
Marino fears nothing but more desperation lies beyond both options at her latest crossroads.
That crossroads gave her the option to escape a $900-a-month Rochester apartment she says was unsafe, but do so by moving into a $1,614 Dover apartment her paycheck and savings won’t be able to sustain unless her circumstances cha
Or, she could’ve fought substandard conditions in that Rochester apartment, potentially losing the only housing she’s found at her price point because the landlord has already threatened her with eviction — which she alleges he did out of retaliation.
The Manchester native, former Northwood firefighter and single mother ultimately chose to leave last week, moving into the Princeton Dover Apartments off Princeton Way.
“I can’t afford to have an eviction,” Marino said bluntly with a furrowed brow. “I literally was trying to figure out, ‘OK, how do we (fight) this?’ and I’m like, ‘I just have to get out.’ We’ve got to get out before he takes us to court.”
For Marino and other renters in the Granite State, that five-letter word — court — is fear inducing.
Surge of evictions
Experts in the state and nationwide have been warning for months that a tidal wave is rolling in as a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium on nonpayment evictions nears its Dec. 31 end.
The U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey has indicated more than 30% of renter respondents have little or no confidence in their ability to make next month’s rent payment. A recent analysis by a Columbia University economist also estimates a 40% to 45% increase in homelessness by the end of 2020 – approximately 250,000 Americans.
Local warnings are now intensifying because other types of evictions, like for renovations and building sales, have been steadily increasing New Hampshire eviction court filings back to pre-COVID-19 levels ever since the state’s moratorium expired in July.
“People are going to be in a really tough spot come Jan. 1 when a lot of landlords, I think, are itching to move forward with evictions that have been put on hold,” said Marta Hurgin, a Portsmouth resident who is handling COVID-19 housing and unemployment cases as a staff attorney at the New Hampshire Legal Advice and Referral Center (LARC). “We’re worried another cliff is coming for tenants without further assistance from the state or federal government.”
The total number of landlord-tenant writs — the first legal step in the eviction process — filed in the state’s district courts doubled from 41 in the week before New Hampshire’s ban ended in July, to 85 the week after it ended, according to data posted on the court system’s website.
Writs spiked to 193 by the week of Aug. 10 and have held steady between 60 and 130 new filings every single week since, save for the holiday-shortened week of Thanksgiving.
In that time, Dover and Rochester’s district courts have had the third and fourth most writ filings in the state during the pandemic, behind Manchester and Nashua.
“We think they are going to increase drastically by the end of the year,” said Hurgin.
This is problematic, Hurgin and local housing advocates say, because of the impact evictions have on renters’ ability to find affordable housing in a state that has next to none available.
Seacoast’s tough housing market
Rental vacancy rates are around 1%. The average rent for a two-bedroom unit has skyrocketed to $1,623 in Rockingham County (a 28% increase in the past five years) and $1,291 in Strafford County (a 26% increase in the same timeframe), according to a recent housing market report by the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority.
Flood that untenable market with hundreds or ethousands of newly evicted tenants and Hurgin says it’s going to deeply worsen the fact landlords already shuffle people with black marks on their rental records — like evictions, low income and bad credit — to the bottom of their stacks of apartment applications. Those stacks can be anywhere from 50 to 300 applications tall for a single Seacoast apartment, local landlords have recently said.
“We have tenants who have been looking for months. They know an eviction is coming … and they’re desperately trying to find a place to go, and there’s nowhere,” said Hurgin, who, as one of five attorneys at NH LARC, has helped 8 to 10 clients a week counter evictions using the CDC moratorium. “The rents are increasing, the availability is decreasing, and we’re coming into the coldest part of the year. There’s definitely a lot of concern for people out there.”
Marino agreed, stating it’s why she wants to get a job involving housing advocacy. She believes a lack of understanding and compassion around why people are housing insecure will greatly hurt Seacoast residents when nonpayment evictions resume.
“We all get thrown into the same pot: You’re being evicted because there’s something wrong with you,” said Marino. “People just assume you’re being evicted because you’re scum. People just put everybody into the same peg.”
Housing funding and resources
One of the strategies New Hampshire and its governor, Chris Sununu, rolled out this year to help renters behind on rent was a housing relief program that provides one-time grants – up to $2,500 – for past-due rent and utilities.
The grants cover households that lost income or saw increased household expenses as a result of COVID-19. They can also be used for additional one-time housing expenses that could place an individual or family in jeopardy if left unpaid.
Sununu allocated $35 million in federal CARES Act funding to create the relief program, putting the state’s five community action programs, including those in Rockingham and Strafford counties, in charge of disbursement.
Betsey Andrews Parker, executive director of Community Action Partnership of Strafford County, has said she’s seen an increase in the number of landlords working with her organization to help keep tenants housed thanks to the program.
However, state officials have said they expect millions of dollars will go unclaimed in the program when the application period ends Dec. 18.
“There will be money left on the table that could’ve gone to people,” said Hurgin.
In August, Sununu vetoed House Bill 1247, which would have offered tenants a six-month repayment plan for rent payments that were missed during the coronavirus pandemic, and clarified that tenants would not need an eviction notice in order to file for welfare assistance. In a veto message, Sununu wrote he believed the bill would’ve added “a major structural problem to an already precarious housing environment.”
Elsewhere, CARES Act funding has been allocated to provide larger grants to landlords whose tenants have been unable to make rent.
In the District of Columbia, CARES Act money is being used to provide grants that cover 80% of missed payments, up to $2,000 per tenant per month, if the landlord agrees to waive the remaining 20% of rent and any unpaid fees, according to a report by Street Sense Media, a news site that covers homelessness and housing issues in DC.
Ryan Weiss, vice president-elect of the New Hampshire Real Estate Investors Association, said New Hampshire implementing a relief program like DC’s would aid local landlords who could get financially “squeezed” even more if the federal moratorium is extended.
“That sounds maybe more fair,” said Weiss, who owns Blue Door Living, a Manchester property management company that oversees 15 buildings containing 61 total apartments. “The challenge is that some of the tenants who were on unemployment and receiving the additional $600 a week were still deciding to not pay their rent. So if there could be relief funds that landlords could access directly on behalf of tenants who are not paying, then I think that would be a really effective program.”
While Weiss said completely lifting the moratorium would help landlords, he said he understands why it was imposed. He also said he and other association members do “feel a lot of empathy for tenants who have been put in really tough spots” because they’ve lost income and jobs due to COVID-19.
“I hope if there’s any future relief that’s available, I hope there’s relief available for both tenants who are negatively impacted and landlords who are negatively impacted,” he said. “If you’re going to prevent us from removing tenants that aren’t paying, then at least give us access to some relief.”
Marino agreed, stating the lack of such programs is symptomatic of the limited funding New Hampshire allocates to proactive and preventive housing strategies.
The state’s strategies are expected to change through the recently retooled Council on Housing Stability, which is set to bring legislative suggestions and preliminary ideas for updating the state’s 2006 homelessness plan by Dec. 14.
“Everything right now with this whole COVID thing, it’s just compounded the problems tenfold for people who are struggling,” said Marino. “New Hampshire is pushing people out of here. It’s almost like the only people who are going to be sustainable in New Hampshire are those who do well and make like, what, $100,000?”