Changes to the state’s motel voucher program are before Vermont House committees, taking into account fewer available motel rooms for homeless people and the emergence from the pandemic.
Reliance on the program exploded throughout the state because of the pandemic as other options for short-term emergency housing needs were lost when congregating with people outside one’s household was forbidden. Eligibility requirements to access the vouchers were lifted to ensure homeless individuals and families had a place to stay.
With the loosening of COVID restrictions, the Department of Children and Families was tasked with collaborating with a working group to craft an Emergency Housing Assistance plan. Members of the House Human Services and Health Care heard about the plan on Thursday in a virtual meeting space.
DCF Commissioner Sean Brown shared details of the plan, including how the pandemic drove a significant need for motel vouchers.
Prepandemic during the winter months, when the need is highest for vouchers, the state was renting motel rooms for 250-300 households. In the pandemic, the state is renting 1,900 rooms.
The need for beds at a time when motels had little to no opportunity to provide lodging for tourists benefited homeless people with nowhere to go and the bottom line of the motel businesses. The state has partnered with 76 lodging establishments statewide to accommodate homeless people.
But now, with restrictions being lifted, motels are increasingly planning to provide fewer state voucher rooms and more availability for the lodging of visitors and tourists.
“We do anticipate that that number (of motel rooms) will start to drop as we reopen in July and through the summer and into the fall,” said Commissioner Brown. “Hotels have told us that they are going to start shifting back to serving tourists and travelers and so we anticipate that our available hotel rooms will drop sharply and will continue to drop through the summer and into the fall.”
Homeless people with motel vouchers have been lodged locally at the Fairbanks Inn in St. Johnsbury, the Colonnade Inn in Lyndonville, Maurice’s in Canaan, and the Pinecrest Motel & Cabins in Barton. Staff at the Fairbanks and the Colonnade could not say on Friday how availability of rooms for voucher guests will change in the coming months.
By July 1, DCF reports, at least 250 motel rooms will not be available for homeless people. By the beginning of next winter, the expectation is that only 650 of the current 1,900 motel rooms will be available for use by the emergency housing voucher system.
Responding to a reduced number of motel rooms and the anticipated movement out of the pandemic, eligibility requirements are being proposed that would limit the number of people who qualify for a voucher.
Commissioner Brown talked about the proposed requirements. He emphasized they are less restrictive than what was required before the pandemic.
The new eligibility requirements are proposed for June 1 for newcomers to the program. For those people currently housed in motel rooms through the voucher system, they’ll need to reapply as of July 1.
Proposed voucher allowances include the following:
• 84 days of lodging will be available for those displaced by a natural disaster such as a flood, fire, or hurricane.
• 84 days of lodging will be available for those displaced by domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, human trafficking, or other dangerous or life-threatening conditions related to violence against a household member that cause them to reasonably believe that they are at risk of further harm if they remain in the unit, or if the relevant incident occurred within the applicant’s home.
• 84 days of lodging will be available for those families with a child or children under the age of 18, or who are 18 or 19 and attending secondary education full-time or an equivalent level of vocational or technical training. Prior to the pandemic, the allowance was for only 28 and the age limit was 6.
• 84 days of lodging will be available for households that include a person with a disability, including but not limited to those receiving SSI, SSDI, or VA disability benefits. Prior to the pandemic, the allowance was for only 28 days.
• 84 days of lodging will be available for households that are pursuing legal resolution of violations of the Rental Housing Health Code through the Vermont Department of Health or appropriate local officials.
• 84 days of lodging will be available for households that have been physically barred entry into their dwelling through the intentional act of the landlord.
Another proposal addresses people who become homeless because of something they did to lose their home. “DCF will not house a client in a hotel/motel if they caused their own loss of housing within the past three months,” notes a report from DCF.
This particular proposal is opposed by Jessica Radford, a Vermont Legal Aid attorney who was part of the working group.
“It’s bad policy and creates particularly adverse effects for children and people with disabilities,” she told the House committees. “I’ve personally had the experience of having a child look me in the eye and beg me to help his family because he didn’t want to sleep outside again and that child did nothing wrong.”
Radford joined the commissioner is highlighting the critical need for affordable housing as a means for reducing the number of homeless people in the state.
“There are simply not enough units to rent to meet the need that we confront,” she said. “Rental subsidies are useless if there’s no place to go with them.”
Said Commissioner Brown, “If we’re really going to address homelessness or significantly reduce it in this state we know right now that one of the biggest pressures is the lack of units and affordable housing.”
The budget to fund the proposal for FY22 is $40,943,390.41. It calls for $17,277,237.80 for motel housing in the non-winter months and $12,513,571.61 during the winter. Some money would be used for helping people exit the motel life and enter their next living situation. Most of the money to fund the proposal is coming from FEMA and other federal funds related to the COVID allotment.
One representative asks where funds will come from once COVID-related federal assistance is gone. Commissioner Brown said what the budget will look like and how it will be funded will be contemplated in the FY 23 budget planning which is set to commence in November.
Discussions about the current proposal will continue in the House, said House Human Service Chair Ann Pugh. Members from Human Services, Health and General Housing and Appropriations will collaborate, she said.
“I am appreciative of the work of the administration and community providers in ensuring that people who needed a place to live were able to spend time in hotels and motels and be safe,” said Rep. Pugh.