Vermont Tenants Are Still Waiting For Assistance As The End Of Eviction Ban Draws Closer
The clock is ticking on federal and state orders that stopped evictions for more than a year. The federal moratorium is set to expire at the end of June. Vermont’s eviction ban will expire on July 15.That’s set up a race to get millions of dollars to thousands of Vermonters at risk of losing their housing due to unpaid rent. But the rollout of the program has been slow and many tenants are still waiting for payments.
For about a year and a half, Lorie Dickson worked at a medical equipment manufacturer in Colchester. And she liked it.
“Real good time, everything we did was by hand, nothing was done on an assembly line or anything,” she said. “Every piece that we built was built by hand.”
But business slowed down due to the pandemic and in September, she got laid off. She said it took a while for her to start getting unemployment checks.
“So that just kind of helps you get farther behind,” she said.
Dickson, who’s 58 and lives in Milton, spent about six months on unemployment. She got about $600 a week, but says it wasn’t enough to pay her bills and cover her $1,150-rent. She says she owes her landlord $2,500.
Vermont received millions of dollars from the federal government to provide rental assistance to people like Dickson during the pandemic. Dickson recently found a new job, but she said it’s been hard to catch up on all her past due bills. So when she heard about the rental assistance program, she thought it could help her get back on track.
"It's always the same thing they tell you: 'It's in process; it's in process. They need this, they need that,' ... and after a while, you just get frustrated with it." - Lorie Dickson
Dickson applied on April 9, shortly after the program opened. The first hurdle? Filling out the online application. Dickson didn’t have a computer, so she used her phone, which involved taking pictures of all the required documents and uploading them.
Now Dickson’s application is stalled. Her landlord needs to send in paperwork but hasn’t. Dickson says she’s not sure what to do. She’s tried to get help through the call center.
“It's always the same thing they tell you: 'It's in process; it's in process,’ she said. “'They need this, they need that,' ... and … after a while, you just get frustrated with it.”
Dickson isn’t the only person struggling to get rental assistance. Only 16% of the 3,072 applications submitted in Vermont have received funds.
Alyssa in Essex Junction has been waiting about two months. She’s kept her job as a medical assistant at UVM Medical Center throughout the pandemic. But her expenses, like childcare, have gone up.
“I always have a job … and I have a good career. I don't ask for help if I don't need it,” she said. “It took a lot to just swallow my pride to ask for help. And when I did, I'm like, ‘OK, this is why I don't,’ and it just … was more stressful than I felt like it should have been.”
More than 16,000 Vermonters are behind on rent, according to a Census Bureau survey from mid-May. Nearly 13,000 say they’re not confident or only slightly confident that they’ll make rent next month.
Grace Pazdan, a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, says there’s plenty of money to help renters.
“Tenants and landlords are eager and they're putting in the time to try and get access to these funds,” Pazdan said. “And it's just been a really, really slow, messy roll out.”
"It's just been a really, really slow, messy roll out." — Grace Pazdan, Vermont Legal Aid
Vermont State Housing Authority is administering the $110 million program. The state contracted out the handling of the call center and case management to BPO American, a South Carolina-based company.
VSHA has improved the program based on feedback from Vermont Legal Aid and other social service organizations, but Pazdan says the case managers, who are out-of-state, need more training. That's led to tenants getting stuck in the system.
“The folks that the call center don't necessarily have accurate information about what the holdup is with applications,” she said.
Tyler Maas, program manager at VSHA, said he meets with case managers multiple times a week to review protocols and changes to the program.
“There’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen,” he said. “We're doing the best we can to please everyone, and the way I see it right now, we've been steady.”
"We're doing the best we can to please everyone, and the way I see it right now, we've been steady." — Tyler Maas, VSHA
Missing documents, required by federal rules, are the big issue, according to Maas. In many cases, tenants don’t provide the information. But about a third of the time, it's the landlord's fault.
“It's us getting the documentation so that's the issue,” Maas said. “People aren't able to provide that and it's nothing … that we have control [over], this is treasury guidance.”
Maas says the program is now distributing over half a million dollars in rental assistance each week.
Dickson, who rents in Milton, is still waiting. Her landlord still hasn’t filled out the paperwork.
But even when Dickson gets the money, some damage has already been done. Dickson says her landlord isn’t renewing her lease when it expires in August — in part because of the late-rent.
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