by Ciara McEneany
Officials hope a new state fund can sway landlords to rent to people who might otherwise lack housing.
The Vermont State Housing Authority launched the Landlord Relief Program last week with help from the state Department for Children and Families. Landlords who apply can receive funding to hold units for up to two months while they work with providers that offer housing vouchers. Recipients can also use the funds for any necessary work to bring units up to health and safety codes.
The program originated from research by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency into the feasibility of a statewide fund to make sure landlords were being supported while also incentivizing them to expand the number of rental units in the state, according to Lily Sojourner, community services program manager with the Department for Children and Families’ Office of Economic Opportunity.
“We had some focus groups with landlords and housing providers to see what their key costs were, what they needed and what successful elements of programs similar to this one in other states looked like,” Sojourner said. “And so, for the past six months we’ve been really working on building the policies and procedures needed while also bringing information to stakeholders.”
The application process looks at how affordable a landlord’s units are or would be.
“There is no income eligibility criteria for those who apply, but there is an affordability criterion,” said Tyler Maas, program director at the Vermont State Housing Authority. “So, the unit must be affordable. The rent must be of gross rent — a combination of the contract rent plus the utility allowance — and must be affordable at 80% of area median income, which is 30% of one’s salary.”
Potential tenants do not need to be screened for income level because their eligibility is based on them already benefiting from a state assistance program.
The program aims to deal with the state’s deficit in rental housing, especially for those who are in higher need of housing, said Tom Donahue, CEO of BROC Community Action, a social services agency serving Bennington and Rutland.
“There’s no income verification — it is based on the tenant already receiving some rental assistance or subsidy in a program. So, it’ll increase the number of units now being provided and made available to this group of Vermonters that often struggle with finding a landlord that’s willing to rent to them,” said Donahue.
By giving landlords a financial safety net, Sojourner said, the program alleviates real or perceived risks to renting to prospective tenants who have housing subsidies or are homeless.
“We feel that this program lets the landlord know that we hear them and their concerns. We want them to go into these relationships in a positive way, feeling like they can build a strong relationship with a tenant,” said Sojourner. “Most of the time it is a successful tenancy, but if something happens, we are here to support landlords and kind of relieve a little bit of that pressure and burden.”
Donahue believes the program will help mitigate the housing crisis enveloping Vermont and put those in need of housing in a stable environment.
“This program is one of the potential answers to getting homeless folks transitioned into a more sustainable, permanent home versus a motel room, which is the version which we’re experiencing now,” said Donahue. “There are a lot of substandard apartments out there, unfortunately. And people are currently living in substandard conditions that we can’t condone.”