Vermont officials say they’ve found $20 million extra to keep rental assistance going for some

Officials with Gov. Phil Scott’s administration said they anticipate having an extra $20 million to keep a pandemic-era rental assistance program going for certain low-income Vermonters into the spring.

With only a month’s notice, the state announced at the end of August that the federally funded Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance Program, or VERAP, would abruptly ramp down, with thousands booted as soon as October. 1. The program is also slated to stop taking new applications for rental assistance at that date, although some reduced utility assistance will be available through the end of the year.

The news came as a shock to lawmakers — who expected federal funding to last at least through the upcoming legislative session this spring — as well as to service providers, and most importantly to VERAP recipients, many of whom had been assured that they would receive 18 months of benefits. It also came at a particularly terrible time in the housing market: With far too few housing units available to meet demand, the cost to buy or rent a home in Vermont has skyrocketed.

Advocates have since urged the administration to return to the drawing board to figure out a way to avoid a rash of evictions. On Wednesday, state officials came before lawmakers to deliver a small measure of good news.

Douglas Farnham, deputy secretary of the Agency of Administration, told the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee that the state had identified about $20 million in additional federal funds that they expected to be able to put toward the program.

Lawmakers are not in session until January, which has limited their ability to get involved. But the Joint Fiscal Committee, a 10-member panel made up of House and Senate lawmakers, meets sporadically throughout the year to review fiscal matters and approve some grants, including in the off-session.

The Agency of Human Services plans to begin engaging with service providers and advocates to figure out how to best target the additional funds, Farnham told the panel. But he emphasized that the new money still wouldn’t be nearly enough to pay out assistance at prior rates.

“If we stay the current course … even that $20 million won’t get us very far,” Farnham said. “Right? So we still need to ramp down.”

Well over 12,000 Vermonters were receiving VERAP benefits in August, when the state announced the program would soon begin winding down. Under the new eligibility criteria announced at that time, a little over 3,000 Vermonters who receive other types of permanent rental assistance — mostly, Section 8 vouchers — will completely lose their VERAP benefits starting Oct. 1. That’s not expected to change, according to Farnham, nor is the decision to stop taking new emergency rental assistance applications at that time.

But the administration would like to explore how to target additional funding for those who will remain in VERAP after Oct. 1. Another roughly 5,000 people are expected to see reduced benefits and then to lose their assistance entirely Nov. 30, and Farnham said the administration would like to keep receiving some benefits through the end of April.

“From when you’re consulting with community partners coming up with a plan, how long after that are you prioritizing before changes are made?” Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D/P-Brattleboro, asked Farnham. “That’s really the most important to Vermonters who might need to make some tougher decisions if we can’t make it into the legislative session to figure this out.”

Farnham said that with such a tight turnaround, VERAP participants would likely be getting at most 30 days notice of increased or continued benefits.

“A personal lesson I’ve learned is: Do not over promise,” he said.

Brenda Siegel, the Democratic nominee for governor and a housing advocate, said she’s concerned about the decision to have Section 8 recipients lose their benefits first.

“They are the most vulnerable people who are fortunate to have some other assistance. But that doesn’t mean that this isn’t going to impact them in a major way. They also were costing the state the least,” Siegel said. “It seems to follow a lack of understanding about what people who are struggling are actually experiencing.”

She also expressed frustration that, similar to the administration’s last-minute extension of a program to provide motel vouchers to Vermonters who would otherwise be homeless last fall, those who receive benefits were once again going to be waiting on an 11th-hour reprieve.

“There’s a lot of jerking people around who are struggling, going on with housing,” she said. “And people with the least need the most time to plan.”

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