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Rental Assistance Program Could Help Thousands Of Vermonters Stay Housed

A red "for rent" sign against a blue sky.
A new rental assistance program launched in April could help thousands of Vermonters cover unpaid rent.

It’s been a tough year for thousands of Vermont tenants. Many renters lost income due to the pandemic. Unpaid bills and missing rent payments have piled up and when the state and federal eviction moratoriums end, thousands could be at risk of losing their apartment.

That’s why Congress allocated billions of dollars to programs to help tenants pay back-rent. In Vermont, a new rental assistance program launched in early April could be a lifeline for struggling residents.

Sara Brien, 23, was making about $50,000 a year as a manager at a grocery store. She was also helping care for her mom, who had stopped working and was isolating at home because of the pandemic. That made Brien nervous about going into work.

“Hundreds of customers come in every day —I don't know where they've been,” she said. "I don't know, you know, what they're doing to protect themselves. And bringing that home to my mom was kind of … scary for me.”

"Not everybody has computer access and with the pandemic, it makes it more challenging to meet people, to give them the assistance that they would really need in a situation like this." - Katrina James, Capstone Community Action

Brien, who lives in Barre, decided to quit and find a job where she’d interact with fewer people.

First, she worked at a car dealership where she had her own office, but she got laid off. Then she worked at a dentist office. She spent six months there but Brien said she wasn’t making any money because “nobody was coming in.”

Brien now works at a property management company, where her salary is half of what it was a year ago.

Her fiancé is also making less. He works at the car dealership, where his pay is partially tied to how many cars he sells and over the last year, people weren’t buying cars. They’ve had to use savings to cover rent for their $1,200, two bedroom-apartment.

“It's very, very stressful because, like, last week before my fiancé got paid, we literally had nothing in our fridge,” Brien said. “The only thing we had was a microwave dinner, and we shared it.”

More from NPR: Government Housing Vouchers Are Hard To Get, Hard To Use

In April there wasn’t enough money to pay rent. Brien said they don’t have the money to pay May’s rent either.

Brien is not alone: nearly 10,000 Vermonters are behind on rent, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey in late-March. State and federal orders halted most evictions during the pandemic, but those orders could soon be lifted.

A federal judge in Texas struck down the national ban last week though it remains in placewhile the Biden Administration appeals the ruling. Vermont’s statewide eviction moratorium is still in effect, but Gov. Phil Scott said Tuesday he doesn’t expect the state’s order to last beyond July 4.

Vermont, along with other states, is hoping to avoid a wave of evictions by using millions of federal dollars to cover back-rent and future payments.

The Vermont State Housing Authority received $110 million to run the new rental assistance program. The group also administered a separate program last year, funded by the first coronavirus relief package. That program awarded about $22.5 million to 7,600 households.

More from NPR: Judge Strikes Down Federal Eviction Moratorium, Setting Up High-Stakes Appeal

But needy tenants may have a harder time getting help from the new relief program. They are required to show that the pandemic hurt their finances, and that their housing is at risk. There are also income restrictions; tenants must be at or below 80% of the area median income.

The documentation required to apply is not the only hurdle. The application is currently only available online, which could discourage people who don’t have ready access to the internet.

Katrina James, at Capstone Community Action in Central Vermont, said their clients are struggling to fill out the application.

"I don't even know what I would do if they gave it to us. I think I would just cry. It would release so much weight off our shoulders." - Sara Brien

“Not everybody has computer access and with the pandemic, it makes it more challenging to meet people, to give them the assistance that they would really need in a situation like this,” James said.

Tyler Maas, program manager at VSHA, says there will eventually be a paper application. In other states, problems with digital applications have drastically delayed getting rental assistance to people. Texas, during the first month of its program, only processed three payments due to software issues, according to a Statehouse committee report.

More from NPR: Losing It All: Mobile Home Owners Evicted Over Small Debts During Pandemic

VSHA did a soft-launch of its online application system last month to make sure there weren’t major glitches, Maas said.

“We received a lot of feedback from the community about what worked and what didn't work,” he said. “So over the past few weeks, we've been developing the application to make it as, you know, effective and efficient as possible.”

Maas said VSHA is preparing to do a public awareness campaign about the program, which could include using data from the first rental assistance program to target households.

“Depending on how that outreach is working, we will do mailings to targeted zip codes ... because we have that data from the last program, where the applications were coming from,” Maas said.

VSHA has received just over 1,500 applications so far. Brien, in Barre, learned about the program through her job at the property management company.

More from VPR: J&J Vaccine Pause Puts Vermonters Without Housing In Limbo

“You enter in your household information, how much you make, people who live with you, why you're behind,” she said. “There's kind of a list of like, you know, did you experience a loss of income, you know, all that stuff.” 

Brien said she didn’t have any issues with the application. She applied for money to cover three months of rent. The uncertainty around how long the eviction moratoriums will last is unsettling, Brien said. For now, she’s still waiting, anxiously refreshing her email to see if the money has come through.

“I don't even know what I would do if they gave it to us. I think I would just cry,” she said. “It would release so much weight off our shoulders.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors

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Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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