State shifts hotel housing program to longer-term stable temporary housing

Motel facade
The Travel Inn in Rutland was one of at least 75 motels around Vermont where state agencies housed people who would otherwise be homeless. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Vermont’s General Housing Assistance Program, which sheltered thousands of Vermonters in hotels and motels during the Covid-19 pandemic, reverted to pre-pandemic eligibility criteria Friday. People who use the program now will continue to be eligible for hotel housing through a new program, which should provide more stability.

Beginning July 1, the Department for Children and Families is shifting most people in hotel housing to the Transitional Housing Program, which will provide homeless people in Vermonters with a hotel room for up to 18 months, and is funded by several federal dollars.

Under the general assistance program, participants should request renewals of DCF on a regular basis, usually every 30 days. Many people who used the program liked the difficult renewal process, as they may have had to wait hours in a phone queue for a DCF representative to become available. The process was especially difficult for those with limited phone or Internet access, or who had to work during office hours.

Under the new program, participants will sign agreements with the hotel for three months at a time and can stay in the program for up to 18 months. The program is designed to provide greater stability while maximizing federal funding, said Katarina Lisaius, senior adviser to the DCF commissioner.

“For the people it’s going to work for, it’s excellent,” said Brenda Siegel, who spent 27 nights sleeping on the steps of the Statehouse last fall to pressure lawmakers to expand the overall assisted living program. (Siegel and other activists’ campaign succeeded, and Siegel is now the only Democratic candidate in this year’s run for governor.)

About 1,600 households are using the hotel housing program, according to Lisaius, and 1,350 households had switched to the longer-term temporary housing program as of Friday afternoon.

DCF will pay for hotels with money from the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Vermont received “more than $350 million” from the U.S. Treasury for rent relief, Lisaius said. The hotel program was funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the pandemic. Under the new program, the cost per room in some hotels is higher, as federal guidelines prohibit the state from negotiating with hotels for a lower rate, Lisaius said.

The general utility costs about $110 per room, per night, she said.

All Vermonters currently in the hotel program will continue to be eligible for the new program, Lisaius said, because the new program has less restrictive eligibility requirements. The household income threshold to participate is now 80% of the area median income — in Chittenden County, that was $55,918 in 2019, according to the most recent data from the Vermont Housing Finance Agency.

The general aid housing threshold was 185% of the federal poverty line, or about $25,000 per year for an individual, according to Vermont Legal Aid

The general assistance program will not disappear with the roll-out of temporary housing, but will become more limited.

“The GA program is a crisis program,” said Lisaius. “So if someone is homeless and meets the eligibility criteria, the GA program exists and will continue to exist.”

While these longer-term occupancy agreements between hotels and program participants will work just like rental agreements, people in the temporary housing program are not legally considered tenants. This was explicitly stated in the Budget Adjustment Act this year. However, the occupancy agreements contain specific rules about how a hotel can force people to leave, Lisaius said, which should provide a number of protections similar to those the law provides for renters.

The roughly 250 households that didn’t sign up for the new program were people who didn’t associate with the department, Lisaius said.

“We are working on appointments minute by minute, so we expect that number to drop,” said Lisaius Friday afternoon.

DCF employees, as well as non-profit partners, have been working since April 1 to enroll people in the program, both over the phone and on-site at hotels.

About 70 hotels across the state participated in the program, Lisaius said, and all but four of the hotels agreed to remain in the temporary housing program. (Two of those hotels are now being converted to permanent housing, she said.)

For Siegel, those 250 households are proof that some Vermonters are still falling through state aid.

“If these programs are designed in such a way that we don’t have a net for people who don’t fit, then we haven’t really solved the problem,” Siegel said in an interview Friday. “This is a really good thing for the people it’s good for, but those who are left behind, it’s not their fault that they are left behind.”

While Siegel praised the work of DCF workers to keep people housed, she said the state could do better to support single parents and those with severe mental illness or substance use disorder. Siegel, a member of Vermont’s GA Emergency Housing Work Group, said she’s also concerned about what will happen when winter returns. For her, any claim that enough permanent homes have been built by then has failed the “straight-face test.”

“We’ve asked for creativity, that we now start working on what’s going to happen in October, when people are again at risk of freezing to death,” Siegel said. “We have to move beyond this moment and we have to have a real vision to move forward.”

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