Editor’s Note: This story was first published onNew Hampshire Bulletin.
Flush with federal cash after a series of stimulus packages, New Hampshire officials have spent more than a year building up housing programs to stave off evictions and help homeless people in the state.
But the efforts have been complicated by tough upcoming federal deadlines dictating how fast the money must be spent. Departments face an increasingly urgent choice: spend the money or lose it. Now, officials are beginning to move money around to try to meet those deadlines.
On Wednesday, the Executive Council approved a request by the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery (GOFERR) to reduce the amount of money allocated to two housing stability programs and divert the dollars to rental relief.
The two programs, the “Intensive Case Management Program” and the “Landlord Incentive Outreach Program,” were launched Oct. 12 to the tune of $3.4 million. The first program is designed to help move people in homeless shelters to more permanent housing through the assignment of case managers. The second aims to incentivize landlords to accept more tenants who receive Housing Choice Vouchers — also known as Section 8.
The action item approved by the council reduces that $3.4 million to $1 million, and transfers the extra $2.3 million into the Emergency Rental Assistance program.
GOFERR has been working with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Community Development Finance Authority through a memorandum of understanding to get the programs up and running.
But officials say that now, with two months left to spend the money, the rental relief program — which compensates landlords for back rent to prevent existing tenants from eviction — is a surer bet to get it out the door. Federal Emergency Rental Assistance funding arrived to the state in two tranches, known as ERA 1 and ERA 2; ERA 1 funds must be spent by the end of September 2022, while ERA 2 funds last until 2025.
“We were working with our partner entities to make sure that (the money) was getting pushed into areas that are spending enough and quickly enough that by the end of September, it would be used up,” said Chase Hagaman, deputy director of GOFERR . “So a good chunk of that is moving some funds into the rental assistance program, because it’s got a pretty high burn rate and high demand.”
The reallocation of the money reduces the scope of some of the programs that state officials have been standing up for the past year. But those running the programs say they will still play a vital role in the effort to reduce homelessness.
The goal, says DHHS Associate Commissioner Christine Santaniello, is to make homelessness “rare, brief, and one-time.”
“This MOU (memorandum of understanding) and our work with CDFA (Community Development Finance Authority) is to assist people to get housed and maintain their housing because that’s really what we want to ensure that people maintain the housing that they have so they don’ t end up being homeless,” Santaniello said.
The Intensive Case Management Program funds shelter and homeless support agencies, creating “system navigation services” to help guide shelter residents to housing opportunities. That work is carried out by staff and volunteers already working at the shelters, Santaniello said.
Due to the reduction in funds and the need to spend the money quickly, DHHS is now focusing on building up a training library for the case-management approach, to be used as a resource in the future, Santaniello said.
The landlord outreach program, meanwhile, is designed to add state support to Home For All, an organization aimed at bringing more landlords on board with accepting Section 8 vouchers. Earlier this year, lawmakers voted down a bill to bar landlords from deciding who they rent to based on a potential tenant’s need for housing vouchers. Home For All seeks to find ways to bring landlords into the system willingly. That can include providing funds to help renovate the apartments to the necessary standards for the federal Housing Choice program and giving landlords the assurance that their tenant has a support network.
The state’s allocation of federal money will go to Granite United Way, which will then partner with Home For All, Santaniello said. Officials are hoping to secure 60 units of Section 8-friendly housing by the end of September, when the money runs out.
Each of the housing programs is a small piece of the larger puzzle, but Santaniello says the state is aiming to reduce first-time homelessness by 30% by 2024. That target comes from the state’s Council on Housing Stability, created by an executive order from Gov. Chris Sununu in 2020.
The partnerships are meant to help achieve that goal, Santaniello says. “A plan to create housing stability and to prevent homelessness — it takes everybody,” she said.
To Hagaman, even though the state has reduced its allocation to the housing stability programs, those programs will be key in the long run. The second tranche of federal rental relief money, known as ERA 2, is set to expire in 2025, but it will eventually disappear, he noted.
“At some point, you know, eventually the funding will be all gone,” he said. “There will have to be a ‘what’s next?’ The services are meant to sort of set up, you know, what’s next.”
Still, Santaniello and others say no amount of federal funding and state incentive programs can change the bigger, more intractable reality: New Hampshire has too few homes for too many people. Finding a solution to that will take years of development and market stabilization that goes beyond the scope of DHHS’s work, she said.
“It’s dependent on the increase of housing units,” she said, of the long-term plan. “So it can’t be done in isolation.”