Renters are at risk.
That was the message delivered by New Hampshire housing advocates during a conference call with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen on Wednesday.
Without a state moratorium on evictions (which expired July 1) or enhanced unemployment benefits (which end July 31) people could be forced from apartments and into homeless shelters.
“Housing is a huge issue in New Hampshire,” Shaheen said. “It was an issue before this pandemic and sadly it’s become even more critical as a result. We have a lot of folks in rental housing who are in desperate straits. We have folks who still can’t afford to buy homes in New Hampshire because of the cost.”
Between 10 and 20 percent of New Hampshire renters have missed payments during the pandemic. Nearly half are “cost burdened,” paying more than 30 percent of their income towards rent.
The problem runs deeper in the North Country where many lost jobs in the hard-hit hospitality, travel and tourism industries during the pandemic.
A surge in evictions would create a dilemma.
Homeless beds and new housing are both hard to find in New Hampshire. Shelter demand remains high and the rental vacancy rate is one percent, well below the national average of 6.6 percent.
“Vacancy rates are so low, and once people become homeless due to eviction it is extremely difficult to re-house them,” said Dean Christon of the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority. “The homeless service sector is already under enormous stress, and adding more people to that would not be in anybody’s interest going forward.”
The problem has been felt locally.
Carolyn Towne, of Tri-County CAP in Littleton, said the number of homeless individuals and families has increased over pre-COVID levels.
“This we have anecdotally attributed to the challenges likely faced when trying to quarantine or successfully stay at home when doubled up with another family,” she said.
The 13-bed Tyler Blaine House in Lancaster and a 15-bed domestic violence shelter are both at half capacity due to social distance requirements. Before staying at the facilities, people must complete quarantines.
“We have utilized hotel stays as temporary shelter with the goal of supporting individuals and families with a 14-day quarantine prior to entering a shelter,” Towne said. “This reduces the risk of exposure to those already in the homeless shelter.”
Cathy Kuhn, of Families In Transition-New Horizons, said her organization’s shelter space in the southern part of the state has been cut from 138 to 64 due to pandemic safety measures.
A temporary 40-bed shelter was created to maintain overall capacity, but it was paid for with temporary funds that will run out at the end of July.
“We’re trying to be as creative as we can in finding a solution, especially as we head into winter, but in a lot of ways we’re feeling like we don’t have a … long-term answer,” she said.
Shaheen expressed frustration that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development continues to withhold Emergency Solutions Grants to aid homeless Americans and those at risk of becoming homeless.
She has continued to work on a follow-up federal relief package that would include additional homeless and housing assistance, she said.