While national leaders warn of an imminent eviction crisis, at least some local leaders say Vermont is ahead of the problem.
The federal eviction moratorium established as result of the COVID-19 pandemic ended in July and an effort to extend it was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court last week. This week, the U.S. Attorney General’s office issued a call for members of the legal community to volunteer with legal aid providers and organizations helping people apply for rental assistance.
One such organization is BROC Community Action, where CEO Tom Donahue said the $110 million allocated by the state for rental assistance has been serving its purpose.
“On our end, it’s going well,” he said. “This has become a national news story, and I feel in many ways the national story doesn’t apply to Vermont because we were ahead on this one. ... We knew it was going to create a crisis. We had some time to get going.”
Donahue said as of Wednesday, the Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance Program (VERAP) had distributed $20,587,827 statewide in response to 7,934 applications. He said 423 of those applications were from Rutland County, which received $1,911,626 of the funds. Donahue said the money goes directly to landlords, who participate in the application process, to pay off arrearages.
That doesn’t mean there are no evictions coming with the end of the moratorium. Rutland-area lawyer Mary Ashcroft runs a program in which the Vermont Bar Association provides representation for low-income tenants and landlords. She said they are preparing for a spike in demand of those services.
“We pay lawyers what we call a ‘low bono’ rate to represent poor people,” she said. “I’ve heard a lot through the pandemic from landlords trying to get people out because they not just not paying rent, but they’re damaging the property. I’ve also heard tenants complain about landlords doing self-help measures to get them out. That’s been a thread.”
Ashcroft said she expects Vermont Legal Aid — which did not respond to inquiries Wednesday — to take on a number of the cases and that she also expects a number of the cases to be resolved as “rent escrow clinics” the courts will start holding soon.
“That’s been pretty effective,” she said. “It’s a good use of lawyer time because the lawyers are right there and they can settle things. ... What I’m bracing for are the foreclosure cases. The moratorium is coming off those and they are beginning to ramp up.”
That ramping up isn’t evident yet at Rutland County civil court, according to court operations manager Sharon McNeil.
“It’s not any different. I think, really than it was before the stay,” she said.
McNeil said the court is just finishing a backlog of cases that were stayed when the pandemic started, but she’d seen no sign of an influx of new evictions.
“We’re not overloaded,” she said. “One of the places that’s really bad has been a lot of them like the Econolodge ... We’re getting a lot from them, but they’ve always been having the people that can’t pay.”
Information from the Washington County civil court was not readily available Wednesday, but Sam Abel-Palmer, head of Vermont Legal Services, said the view is different from his office.
“We’re definitely getting inundated,” said Abel-Palmer, whose organization takes calls from people in need and refers them to groups like Vermont Legal Aid. “It’s all hitting the courts right now in very large numbers. ... I see what comes in the front door. For a lot of reasons, our call volume throughout the pandemic has been really high.”
Abel-Palmer said they do case counts twice a month and went from about 50 calls in the first half of August to more than 100 in the second, an increase he guessed was largely due to eviction cases. Abel-Palmer said while he wouldn’t dispute Donahue’s claim that Vermont is in better shape than other parts of the country, he did not take a rosy view of the situation.
“There are different degrees of bad,” he said. “What I hear from other places anecdotally is things are less bad in Vermont than they are in other places. We’ve been somewhat disappointed and frustrated with the rollout of the rental assistance program and the money is not getting out there as quickly as we would like.”
Abel-Palmer said he has not worked directly with the application process, but his understanding is that it is “less than efficient” and a number of people have had trouble accessing it.
Donahue said the application can be cumbersome, and that BROC does its best to help.
“I’ve got full-time staff working on it every day,” he said. “There’s a lot of questions and a lot of uploading of documents. That shouldn’t discourage anyone. They can call us, and we can walk them through it.”
Collin Fingon, who co-owns 19 rental units in Rutland, said the pandemic has been a “mixed bag” for him and his tenants.
“Everyone’s had hard times,” he said. “A lot them had to work around paying on time, but the VERAP program has been successful. Putting a moratorium on evictions is great ... but it’s tough when there’s no support on the other side. Unemployment hit first and put money in our tenants pockets but they didn’t necessarily turn around and pay us.”
Fingon said he was pleased to get paid directly by VERAP, and he has not had any tenants who he has been waiting to evict.
“Anyone who’s in these situations, it seems to be they’ve turned out positive,” he said. “If they go seek help, there is help to be had.”