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In N.H., Assistance Remains Available For People Struggling To Pay Rent

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New Hampshire’s tight housing market continues to be one of the biggest challenges facing the state as it seeks to grow economically and demographically.

And as the Delta variant surges, thousands of New Hampshire residents could be affected by a potential economic downturn and need rental assistance.

Dean Christon is the executive director and CEO of N.H. Housing, an agency created by the state legislature to promote affordable housing and provide housing assistance to Granite Staters.

NHPR’s Morning Edition host Rick Ganley talked with Christon about the latest efforts to address the state’s housing crisis. Below is a transcript of the interview.

Rick Ganley: New Hampshire Housing offers assistance to people who are struggling to make their rental payments. Has the agency worked to expand its outreach as the rental market has become more difficult to navigate for low-income individuals and families?

Dean Christon: Sure, there are a couple of different ways in which we are addressing that issue. For many years, we have administered a federal rental assistance program known as the housing choice voucher program. That is a program that provides long-term rental assistance to very low-income households by paying a portion of their rent. They pay a portion and the remainder is paid essentially by the federal government with that program. And the amount of assistance they receive is based on what their income is.

That program [affects] just about 4,000 households across the state, through the work that we do. And that program has expanded over the last year with the addition of additional vouchers, including vouchers that are specifically targeted to people who are at risk of homelessness or have disabilities, or veterans in need of supportive housing, and other populations, special needs populations.

Rick Ganley: I wanted to ask you what the agency is doing to help reach individuals specifically who may have English as a second language. Are there specific services for immigrant or refugee households?

Dean Christon: Sure. There is also this really significant new program that we've taken on in the last six or eight months in cooperation with the governor's office known as the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which is specifically targeted to individuals who had hardships as a result of COVID. And those households include, in many cases, people that are not normally participating in things like housing choice voucher program, people that might not be aware of the availability of resources.

And so we have worked with a number of community organizations to kind of promote that program, to do some expanded outreach, to include providing materials to folks in a variety of languages, to engaging directly with organizations that work with underserved populations in the community, including people that might not have English as their primary language, people who, frankly, might not be fully documented, because the program is really available to anyone who meets income guidelines and has the need for rental assistance. And we want to be sure that people are aware of that.

Rick Ganley: We're seeing more grassroots efforts around affordable housing across New Hampshire, but especially in cities like Manchester and Nashua. People are knocking on doors to let families know about assistance. Organizers are leading community conversations about tenant rights. Now, part of this movement stems from the belief that state institutions have failed in some ways in providing adequate help with affordable housing. How do you think agencies like New Hampshire Housing need to continue to evolve to meet the needs of people in the state?

Dean Christon: Well, I think we actually are working pretty hard with community groups and organizations to try to communicate about the availability of, not just this program, but other resources. And we've been doing that for a long time. The Emergency Rental Assistance Program has actually served over 5,000 families since it began in March. And the resources that have been distributed are coming close to $40 million statewide.

And on top of that, I think it's important to note that about 27,000 property owners have received assistance through the program. So it really is reaching those small property owners, perhaps, who might otherwise be at risk. And it's reaching families that could be impacted in a negative way by their inability to pay rent.

Rick Ganley: You're retiring from New Hampshire Housing at the end of the year. What have you learned during your decades-long work on affordable housing here in New Hampshire? What are you hoping for, for the future?

Dean Christon: Well, what I've learned is that the core challenge that we face as a state is we really just don't produce enough housing to meet demand. A lot of the challenges that we've just talked about would be easier to address if the supply and demand equation was a little more balanced. And I think a lot of that has to go to the way we make regulatory decisions in the state at a very local level, where what are oftentimes very reasonable concerns about potential changes in a community can translate into regulatory policies that make it very, very difficult for the private sector to respond to the demand for housing. And so we need to keep educating people about the connection between housing and economic growth and development.

We need to keep working at the local level to ensure that people understand that housing-friendly policies are actually good for, not just an individual community, but also for the region and for the state. And that in the long run, it's good for all of us from an economic and, frankly, a social development perspective.

Rick Ganley: It sounds to me like what you're saying, though, is when you have local control, like we do in so many issues here in New Hampshire, it's a fairly inefficient way to try to solve the problem.

Dean Christon: It is challenging. There's no doubt about it, because you really got to make those changes on a community-by-community basis. And the processes can take a long time and be very challenging to achieve good goals. I will say there are good examples of communities. You know, a lot of good work was done in the Mount Washington Valley not that long ago. There's been work done on a number of communities in the southern part of the state that have really modified their zoning and regulatory policies to be more housing friendly. So it can be done and is being done, but it takes time.