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Vermont hopes to avert evictions, foreclosures with $25M in housing aid

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MONTPELIER — As the economic toll of COVID-19 intensifies longstanding concerns about housing insecurity in Vermont, the state is poised to disburse $25 million to renters and homeowners that might otherwise face eviction or foreclosure.

Beginning Monday, July 13, the Vermont State Housing Authority and Vermont Housing Finance Agency will begin accepting applications from renters, landlords and homeowners who are either past due on rent, or who have missed at least two monthly mortgage payments since March.

Funding for the program includes $20 million for rental assistance and $5 million for mortgage assistance, and comes from the $1.25 billion Vermont received in federal coronavirus aid from Congress earlier this year.

Gov. Phil Scott said during a media briefing Friday that the money likely won't be enough to address the need.

"Landlords, renters, homeowners and those experiencing homelessness have all been impacted by this virus and need some help," Scott said. "I know many Vermont families and landlords are struggling, and this won't be enough and won't address all their needs. But we'll continue to look for ways to support them so they can survive this once-in-a-century crisis."

A report by the Urban Institute last month estimated that nearly 9 million renter households nationwide have at least one person who's lost a job since February.

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Richard Williams, executive director of the Vermont State Housing Authority, said many renters struggled to afford their monthly payments even before the pandemic.

According to Richards, one quarter of all renters in Vermont spend more than half their monthly income on housing costs.

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"These renters are at high risk of housing instability, which can lead to frequent moves, eviction and even homelessness," Williams said Friday. "The primary goal of this program during this public health emergency is to keep Vermonters housed, allow Vermonters to keep their rented homes, and avoid homelessness."

The COVID-19 rental assistance program is open to any renter or landlord whose rental payments are in arrears, regardless of income. Williams said the grants will be disbursed on a first-come, first-served basis.

Maura Collins, executive director of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, said mortgage assistance will be limited to households that made less than $15,000 over the last 90 days, or less than $18,000 in Chittenden County.

She also said awards will be prioritized based on need.

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"Over 60 percent of Vermonters own their homes and owe money on a mortgage, and many of them have been hit hard by the economic toll of the COVID crisis," Collins said. "We anticipate that there will not be enough funding for the applications that we expect, so we'll be prioritizing those who have the lowest income and the highest risk of foreclosure."

Williams said his organization estimates that 10 percent of Vermont's 85,000 low-income renters are already delinquent on payments, and he said that number could rise when the federal government's $600 weekly unemployment bonuses expire at the end of July.

Collins said 7 percent to 10 percent of mortgage holders in Vermont have already taken advantage of forbearance options that banks and credit unions have offered customers during the pandemic.

In May, lawmakers approved legislation that imposes a temporary moratorium on all eviction proceedings in Vermont. That moratorium will expire 30 days, after Scott lifts the state of emergency in Vermont.

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