Running out of cash, Vt. pandemic rental assistance to wrap up earlier than expected

Published: Aug. 31, 2022 at 6:28 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Big changes are coming to Vermont’s emergency housing programs as the federal pandemic funding they were set up under starts to dry up.

The Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance Program, or VERAP, was created to help renters dealing with financial challenges during the pandemic. It’s been paying rent for some 12,600 households averaging about $960 dollars a month. But Vermont Agency of Human Services Secretary Jenney Samuelson says the program is no longer sustainable.

“We’re now at a different phase of managing the COVID-19 pandemic as Vermonters are back at work -- businesses are open at this time. The funds used to manage the emergency are beginning to run out,” she said.

At the current pace, the rental funds will dry up by the end of the year. So, starting October 1, VERAP will stop taking new applications for rent relief and existing participants will receive reduced assistance depending on their income.

Those with incomes between 30% and 80% percent of area median income will be reduced to 70% on October 1. Then, reduced by 50% on November 1. Those with incomes below 30% of the area median income will be reduced to 70% by the start of October and will be paid out until the funding runs dry.

Democratic candidate for governor Brenda Siegel has been outspoken on housing needs over the past two years, even camping out on the Statehouse steps for nearly a month to call for more assistance for the homeless. She and other housing advocates are outraged at the coming changes and say the state should have planned for this outcome and come up with state dollars to replace the lost federal funding. “The lesson was not learned to plan ahead,” Siegel said. “It would have been really helpful when those things were suggested when the Legislature was in session. Over and over again in between sessions, we learned things that should have been known in advance.”

The rental funds were supposed to last until 2025. In the spring, the Scott administration’s told lawmakers and housing organizations that the state’s analysis assumed the funding would last through 2023. However, there was a change in federal guidance, and the state ran through the money faster than expected. “The reason that everyone that is finding out about this now is that we didn’t have the actual spending recorded and the data to know we were going to run out of money before the end of the winter,” said Doug Farnham with the Vermont Agency of Administration.

Another program that has helped 1,500 households transition out of homelessness will also wind down. State officials maintain there is still a safety net for those who need it. They say the General Assistance Program, which places people in hotels, and the Reach Up Program -- are not changing. And unlike 2019, they say there is over $300 million worth of housing investments underway and more to come soon.

State officials say they will keep a close on the estimated 3,000 renters who fall below the new 30% VERAP threshold, to make sure they have the services they need through the winter and leading up to next the next legislative session when the state is slated to come up with a new plan to serve some of the state’s lowest income families.