Gov. Chris Sununu has asked Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to help the state address its affordable housing shortage by allowing federal money designed to help people pay their rent during the pandemic to also be used to develop and build new rental units.
In a letter to Yellen dated May 4, the governor called the permissible uses for funds distributed to states through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program – approved at the end of 2020 – as “overly restrictive.” The money can be applied against rent, utility and energy costs, as well as “other housing-related expenses due direct or indirectly to Covid-19,” which the Treasury Department takes to mean costs of security deposits, late fees and hotel stays.
“The challenge of enabling people (to) maintain their housing during this pandemic isn’t just about rental relief,” Sununu wrote. “It’s about the lack of available affordable housing.” Temporarily paying for rent and utilities, he likened to “little more than a band-aid for a broken leg.”
The governor noted vacancy rates in rental markets are “approaching zero.” Moreover, he said seasonal and second-home owners, who he described as “a major source of rental units for years,” especially in the Lakes Region, White Mountains and Mount Washington Valley, have moved into their homes to escape the pandemic, further shrinking the tight rental market. And he pointed to the “dramatic influx in migration of people from neighboring states relocating to New Hampshire throughout the pandemic.”
Sununu recommended the qualified uses of the funding provided by the program be expanded to include investment in construction of affordable housing to offset the impact of the pandemic on the stock of rental units, incentives for public-private partnerships to develop affordable housing and measures to reduce the risks to developers and lenders in undertaking projects to serve “socially and economically disadvantaged people.”
In 2019, Sununu supported a legislative initiative to address the mounting shortage of affordable housing, but it was overtaken by the pandemic and stalled in the Legislature.
This article first appeared in N.H. Business Review. It is being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.