How a new partnership brings rental aid to people on the brink of eviction in Manchester and Nashua
Last week, Jeremy Elliott came to the Manchester Circuit Court for an eviction hearing. Instead, he skipped the hearing — and walked out of the courthouse with the financial help he needed to stay in his home.
“This is the first time I've ever applied for any assistance for anything,” Elliott said, speaking in a lobby outside the courtroom.
That assistance found its way to Elliott thanks to a relatively new partnership between a coalition of local institutions: the New Hampshire Circuit Court system, New Hampshire Legal Assistance, 603 Legal Aid and Southern New Hampshire Services, an agency that offers housing aid and other help to people in Hillsborough and Rockingham counties.
Earlier this year, New Hampshire got $200 million in federal coronavirus relief money meant to help prevent a wave of evictions due to the pandemic. But delivering that aid to renters and landlords proved challenging.
The courthouse rental assistance program was designed to fix that. It began in early September, as federal eviction moratoriums ended, with the goal of making it easier for tenants to get the federal aid meant to keep them in their homes while also making it easier for landlords to get paid what they’re owed. Since September, more than 160 people have avoided eviction because of this effort.
In Elliott’s case, the extra help came in the form of a nudge to apply ahead of his hearing and follow-up assistance finalizing his application.
A few days before his eviction hearing, he got a call from someone working with New Hampshire Legal Assistance, encouraging him to apply for rental aid through Southern New Hampshire Services. So he put in an application, and when he showed up to court a few days later, a caseworker from Southern New Hampshire Services reviewed his paperwork and approved his payments. He received an assurance on the spot that the program would cover back rent, late fees, court fees and his future rent through March.
“It's very easy, easy to understand [and] apply,” Elliott said. “And now it looks like it's working out today, so that's good.”
Making the process work smoothly has required some changes on the court’s part. In large part, that’s meant making a push to let people know help’s available: Posters advertising the rental assistance program are scattered throughout the courthouse, and each docket of eviction cases begins with an announcement that immediate help is available for those struggling to pay rent.
If someone agrees to take the court up on that offer, their hearing is paused while they step outside to talk to a caseworker or an attorney about their eligibility. In many cases, people have been approved for the emergency rental aid right at the courthouse — and their eviction cases have been dismissed.
That’s been a welcome change of pace not just for tenants and landlords, but also for court employees like Jessica Lemay. As the housing specialist in the clerk’s office at the Manchester Circuit Court, she sits through a lot of eviction cases. In the last few months, she’s watched with relief as many of those cases have been dismissed.
“It doesn't seem so dreadful going into the courtroom anymore,” she said. “Like being worried for people, in a way. I know we have to stay unbiased, but you still — your heartstrings are still pulled when you see somebody crying in the courtroom because they're about to lose their home."
Lemay said there are other benefits, too. A lot more people are showing up for their eviction hearings instead of skipping them and assuming they’ve already lost, she said. It’s also taught her to take more time to talk to people when they come into her office to file paperwork before an eviction case.
“Just making them aware that we're here and there is help here at the court and they don't have to be afraid,” she said.
The program has also been hailed as a win for landlords, too. Brian Shaughnessy, a lawyer who represents many of them in local courts, said the ability to receive immediate assurance that rental aid will be paid has been a big help to property owners who were hurt financially during the pandemic.
As the co-chair of 603 Legal Aid, which provides legal services to low-income people across New Hampshire, Shaugnessy said he’s also been encouraged to see the courts promoting more ways to resolve a landlord-tenant dispute without defaulting to an eviction.
“There's less animosity there, a little bit more cooperation in trying to solve the problem,” he said.
While the courthouse rental assistance program has helped lots of people, it does have its limitations.
Showing up to court can still be a scary prospect for many, including undocumented immigrants or other people who’ve had negative interactions with the criminal justice system — so this aid still might not be reaching everyone who needs it. However, Southern New Hampshire Services has partnered with community organizations, including those serving non-English speaking populations, to spread the word about this rental aid outside of court.
Some other eviction diversion programs take more aggressive steps to keep people out of court altogether, as outlined in detail by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. In Philadelphia, for example, landlords are required to apply for rental assistance and participate in a mediation program before trying to evict someone for past-due rent.
The courthouse rental assistance provided in New Hampshire also only prevents evictions for cases involving past due rent. Many people are still losing their homes for other kinds of evictions, like if the building has been sold or the owner is trying to renovate.
And for now, this program is only available in Manchester and Nashua, though representatives from Southern New Hampshire Services receive eviction dockets for all of the courts in their coverage area and try to connect with people on those lists, even if they can’t attend hearings in-person.
“We’re all hands on deck,” said Donnalee Lozeau, who leads Southern New Hampshire Services.
Lozeau said the in-person courthouse assistance can speed up a process that can otherwise take four to six weeks, from the time someone applies to when their aid is finalized. When all of the parties are at the table at the same time, she said it’s easier to verify everyone’s information and distribute money more quickly.
At last count, Lozeau said Southern New Hampshire Services is pushing out about a million dollars in aid each week. At the same time, they’re getting about 400 to 500 new applications a week, too.
“I really thought that we would see a decline in new applications coming in,” she said. "I certainly thought by now, you know, that number would go down, but it just isn't.”
Meanwhile, each week brings 80 to 90 new eviction filings in courts across New Hampshire. While that number is lower than before the pandemic, that’s still a sign that demand for this kind of assistance isn’t likely to slow down anytime soon.