The statewide eviction moratorium, which has kept many Vermonters housed through the pandemic, will expire in less than 30 days, since Gov. Phil Scott did not renew the state of emergency this week.
While various financial assistance programs were established over the last year to aid folks behind on their rent, many tenant and housing advocates worry that there is not enough time to actually place dollars into tenants’ hands, leaving many Vermonters without a roof over their head and their belongings on the curb.
What is the eviction moratorium?
Four different COVID-19 restrictions at the federal and state levels are currently halting the eviction of tenants from their homes. The federal CARES Act of 2020, the federal Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, the Vermont Judiciary’s emergency rules and a state law, S.333, which directly ties the moratorium’s end to the state of emergency, all contain rules banning property-owners from kicking out tenants, some more stringent than others.
In Vermont, S.333 paused most evictions cases until 30 days after Scott’s state of emergency ends, except evictions for lease violations, which can be filed immediately.
Scott triggered the timer on Monday, when he announced he would not renew the state of emergency set to expire at midnight on Tuesday, June 15.
So, what will happen after the 30 days is up? Will the ceiling cave in, raining thousands of evictions on Vermont courts? Will all tenants be able to sign up for financial assistance in time, or will some Vermonters fall through the cracks?
“That’s kind of the million-dollar question,” said Angela Zaikowski, director of the Vermont Landlord Association and an attorney representing landlords.
Does she expect an onslaught of evictions?
“It’s possible,” she said, but she doesn’t know. Most property-owners approach eviction as “the last stop,” from her experience, and few saw the benefit to filing a claim and waiting until the moratorium lifts. She can only hope that tenants apply early for the rental assistance programs before the metaphorical house catches fire.
She does know that eviction claims dropped dramatically during the pandemic, by about a third, largely due to the moratorium. In Chittenden County, 413 eviction cases were filed in 2019, compared to 167 cases filed in 2020.
According to Jean Murray, a longtime lawyer at Vermont Legal Aid that supports tenant rights, some tenants may not even know that their landlord filed an eviction against them. Some cases have collected dust for 12 months, since part of the process requires a sheriff to serve tenants an eviction notice — but that practice also stopped during the pandemic.
Step one in the process: a landlord files an eviction notice and the sheriff delivers paperwork to the defendant, usually the tenant. Time is allotted for an answer, which must be written, filed with the court and delivered back to the landlord, said Murray.
The discovery process, where each side answers questions about the facts of the case, usually comes next, followed soon by a status conference to discern the amount of time for a trial. After a trial, or merits hearing, the court may make a decision. If the landlord is awarded possession back, the court can issue a writ of possession, then it’s up to the landlord to ask the sheriff to serve the tenant.
Before the pandemic, there were about 1,800 evictions a year across the state, said Murray, about 70 percent of which are for non-payment of rent.
“So, if rent could be paid, we could get rid of 70 percent of the evictions,” said Murray.
Eviction is not the cheap, easy option, per Zaikowski’s and Murray’s assessment. The timeline varies widely across cases, said Murray. It can be painful for everyone involved and add barriers to stable housing for people rebuilding their lives.
“Having to go through eviction is devastating. It’s devastating. You lose things just by moving, and moving when you don’t want to,” said Murray. Even for folks who can find a place to stay or rent soon after, the trauma doesn’t fade away.
Running out of time
In April, the Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance Program kicked off, offering financial assistance to tenants in an attempt to provide some support as the moratorium draws to a close.
Many have criticized its slow rollout, however, and worry if Vermonters in need will be able to gather their paperwork and apply in time.
“If the rent assistance program was working, I guess I wouldn’t worry as much about the end of the moratorium,” said Murray. “I don’t want people to lose confidence, because there’s a lot of money there. A whole lot more people are eligible for this than it looks like from looking at the application.”
Sandrine Kibuey, director of the Housing Advocacy Programs at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, also worries about the short amount of time left to help struggling renters.
“It’s a question of time and time is running out,” she said. The sooner tenants are able to apply the better, she said, but outreach has been an issue, not to mention that housing solutions usually take more time than a couple months.
“This is what my fear is: we’re going to get a crisis before we are able to find the solution or resolve it. Because it takes time to be healthy, it takes time to rehabilitate,” said Kibuey.
Housing crisis magnified
According to a 2019 report by Vermont Legal Aid, eviction is a kind of “accelerant for poverty: it comes out of poverty and it creates even more. Reducing evictions in Vermont could be one of the most effective anti-poverty tools we have.”
One Vermonter who struggled to find stable housing through the pandemic ended up staying at the Holiday Inn in South Burlington, which partnered with the state during the pandemic to provide emergency housing.
As an educator and substitute teacher in various local schools, she asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions in her professional life — even though she thinks it’s important to destigmatize.
“Safe, secure housing really is a fundamental human right,” she said, and many people were displaced during the pandemic who don’t fit traditional stereotypes.
Although she recently moved out of the hotel into more stable housing, with assistance from the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, she doesn’t really have words to describe how she feels about the tenuousness of her housing situation. She’s glad to be housed, to find some job opportunities, to plant cherry tomatoes in her garden — that’s where her gaze is focused.
“The bottom line is there is not enough affordable housing stock,” she added.
The housing assistance program at the Holiday Inn, which currently provides about 150 rooms to folks in transition, will expire at the end of the month.
“There’s a big gap between what we have been doing, and what we are currently doing,” noted South Burlington Rep. John Killacky. “It’s a very daunting precipice.”
Funds in the recently passed budget are allocated for 150 new shelter units and for more affordable housing, he said. And while he hopes food banks and other services will be open and fully functional as the eviction moratorium ends and housing programs like the Holiday Inn close, he worries if the dollars will make it to Vermonters in time.
“It’s a big leap of faith that our society is going to open that quickly,” he said.
People often become homeless after being evicted, according to Sherry Marcelino, who works with the Lamoille County Mental Health Services and as the Morrisville response team contact for the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness.
“We are anticipating there’ll be a backlog of evictions and that it won’t be a streamlined process. Even before the moratorium, evictions can take up to six months, so it’s not a quick process for sure,” she said.
Previous evictions, poor credit and low income all act as barriers for many folks struggling to find housing. During the pandemic, she’s seen an increase in young people ages 18-24 as well as a number of senior citizens in transitional housing.
“Where we come in is that we actually do landlord outreach to try to tell more of the story for a person, and to let them know why this person actually is a good tenant,” said Marcelino.
Everybody she works with seems nervous, she added, partly because the rules keep changing. Learning and accessing new information takes a toll and the clients she works with are concerned they won’t be able to find housing, even if they’re eligible.
“I think that it’s really hard to pull yourself up when you have no shelter above you,” said Marcelino.