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Scott administration announces abrupt halt in rental assistance for more than 8,000 Vermont households

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brenda Siegel standing at a podium on the Statehouse steps, surrounded by five people.
Peter Hirschfeld
/
Vermont Public
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brenda Siegel held a press conference in Montpelier on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022 to condemn the Scott administration's decision to terminate rental assistance benefits for thousands of Vermont households.

Federal housing subsidies that have helped thousands of low-income Vermonters pay rent during the pandemic will come to an abrupt halt this fall, and some housing advocates are worried about a spike in homelessness as winter arrives.

The Scott administration announced today that it’s exhausted most of its share of federal Emergency Rental Assistance program funds more quickly than anticipated. In order to preserve remaining funds for the very lowest-income Vermonters through winter, the majority of the approximately 12,000 households currently receiving benefits will see assistance expire by Dec. 1.

Vermont Public’s Mary Engisch spoke with reporter Peter Hirschfeld about what the announcement could mean for households that that will see benefits terminated or reduced. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: What programs exactly will be affected by today’s announcement? And what’s the financial hit going to be for Vermonters who’ve been drawing down benefits?

Peter Hirschfeld: So there are two discreet programs at play here. One is called the Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance Program, or VERAP. And the other is known as the transitional housing program.

Let’s start with VERAP, because that’s the one that’s going to affect the most people. Right now, there are about 12,000 Vermont households getting benefits from VERAP, and those monthly benefits average $964 a month.

The severity of the benefits reduction for folks is going to depend on their income level. And precise income eligibility depends on where you live in the state, or how many people are in your household. But for simplicity’s sake, I’m going to use an example of a one-person household in an average region of the state.

So, if you’re a one-person household making more than about $49,000 a year, your benefits disappear altogether on Oct. 1. If you’re a single person making as little as $18,000 a year, your benefits are going to disappear by Dec. 1 And if you’re making less than $18,000 a year, your benefit gets cut by 30% starting Oct. 1, but then holds steady until through at least March probably.

So of the 12,000 households getting this benefit now, two-thirds will see that benefit eliminated entirely by Dec. 1

More from Vermont Public: Rental Assistance Program Could Help Thousands Of Vermonters Stay Housed

The other program — the transitional housing program — draws down funds from the same federal program, but it uses that money exclusively to help people pay for motel housing. There are about 1,500 people in that program. And the administration announced today that its going to stop taking applications for that program on Oct. 1. And it said that it expects that program to expire on March 31. So enough to get folks through the winter, but some real uncertainty after that.

And anybody who isn’t in the program by Oct. 1 is going to be out of luck come winter.

The benefit reductions are going to start taking effect on Oct. 1 — that’s less than a month from now. Why didn’t the Scott administration give more advance notice to the people are going to be affected by this announcement?

The administration’s explanation is that the federal government designed the program in a way that kind of forced them to use the money as quickly as possible. If a state isn’t spending its share of the money at a rapid enough clip, then the federal treasury will say, ‘Hey, we don’t think you’re going to use it all,’ and they start taking some of it back.

That actually happened to Vermont: the feds took back $30 million earlier this year when they took a look to see how quickly we were spending it. So, state officials went out of their way to get as much money out the door as quickly as possible. Administration officials said today that they didn’t realize until very recently that they were spending the money at such a rapid clip. And they said in order to preserve any level of benefit for folks through the winter, they needed to ratchet back on benefit levels almost immediately.

Brenda Siegel, the Democratic candidate for governor, held a press conference on the Statehouse lawn Wednesday afternoon to react to today’s announcement. What did she have to say about this?

Brenda Siegel said this decision is going put people on the streets, put people out in the cold this winter, and put them at risk of dying. And she said it was a failure of planning on Gov. Phil Scott’s part that we find ourselves in this moment right now. Siegel said the administration had an unprecedented amount of federal money to work with. And she said the fact that they didn’t have a better plan in place to stretch those resources as far as possible was a dereliction of duty.

The Scott administration says it has backstops in place. Administration officials say they have a general assistance housing program it can use to help people that are affected by the loss of these rental subsidies. They have an emergency motel housing program that will provide shelter on cold nights in winter.

More from Vermont Public: With influx of federal funds, Scott administration expands emergency motel housing program until March 2022

The administration also says it’s pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the construction of affordable housing units, which it says is the real long-term solution to the housing crisis in Vermont.

But Siegel says it’s cruel and inhumane to give low-income folks a couple months notice before shutting off a benefit they’ve come to rely on for housing. And she’s definitely looking to make it a political issue during the campaign for governor this summer and fall.

I know you’ve been talking with other housing experts today Pete — how are they responding to this news?

So I’ve talked to folks at a few shelters across the state. They generally don’t share Siegel’s contempt for the administration. I’ve spoken with people who say they’ve been really impressed by the seriousness with which the Agency of Human Services and Department for Children and Families takes issues related to housing insecurity.

But while they don’t think Gov. Scott or the Agency of Human Services officials are inept, or somehow blind to the plight of the housing insecure, they do have serious concerns about what these program changes are going to mean for folks in their communities.

They say the emergency rental assistance program has been the thing keeping some folks housed. And when that expires, housing experts have real concerns about a spike in homelessness right as the winter months set in. They’re also severely concerned about the fact that the transitional housing program is going to stop accepting applications on Oct. 1. I talked to someone who runs a shelter in the Upper Valley today who said his organization is talking to people daily who are looking to get into that program. For a lot of them, there is no other option for getting housed, and come Oct. 1, that one option they do have is going by the wayside.

And finally Pete, the Legislature spent a lot of time during this past session to stabilize housing options for vulnerable Vermonters. What have lawmakers had to say about the administration’s announcement today?

House Speaker Jill Krowinski and Senate President Becca Balint issued a joint statement this afternoon. They said look, we always knew there was going to be an end date for this emergency rental assistance program, that it’s not something that’s going to last forever. But they said they were caught off guard by the announcement and are really concerned about what the lack of preparation is going to mean for them.

They said they appreciated the administration’s strategy of stretching funds to get the lowest-income Vermonters through winter at least, but they said the governor should’ve spent more time working with advocates and housing experts before moving forward with this plan.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld:

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The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered, Weekend Edition Saturday and Weekend Edition Sunday.
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