Kyle Stucker

Portsmouth Herald

Local landlords, according to a New Hampshire attorney who represents them, are now successfully using health and safety arguments to “couch” their efforts to evict tenants who are behind on rent because a federal COVID-19 moratorium prevents nonpayment evictions.

Eviction attorney Andy Sullivan says it’s legal and a step that has to be taken. He argues property managers are getting little help from the government in staving off bankruptcy and the bleak picture he sees developing in local communities.

Attorneys on the other side, like Marta Hurgin, a staff attorney at the New Hampshire Legal Advice and Referral Center, agree there are deeply problematic things on the horizon, but for different reasons. They say landlords skirting the intent of the eviction moratorium will only worsen New Hampshire’s housing crisis, given that evictions are nearing pre-COVID levels despite the moratorium.

Hurgin argues the latitude afforded with the CDC moratorium and the ways landlords are utilizing it could explain why evictions have been increasing since the state’s own moratorium expired in July.

“It does appear, landlords are becoming aware of the moratorium and are trying to skirt the spirit of the moratorium, which was to prevent homelessness during a pandemic,” said Hurgin. “It’s disconcerting and disappointing to hear from someone who is representing landlords.”

Hurgin said the increase in evictions is illustrated by landlord-tenant writs, the first legal step in the eviction process.

The total number filed in the state’s district courts doubled from 41 in the week before New Hampshire’s own nonpayment eviction ban ended in July, to 85 the week after it ended, according to data posted on the court system’s website.

Writs spiked to 193 by the week of Aug. 10 and have held steady between 60 and 130 new filings every single week since, save for the holiday-shortened week of Thanksgiving.

In comparison, between December 2019 and when state COVID-19 emergency orders were first issued in mid-March, the number of writs filed per week ranged from 84 to 149. Nonpayment evictions were allowed during those 11 weeks.

According to Susan Warner, a spokesperson for the judicial system, statistics for the different types of eviction filings and cases aren’t tracked. That means records don’t exist to determine, without pulling each case individually, which types of cases may be driving the number of writs filed on any given week.

“There should be better data so policymakers can make better decisions and people can be better informed about what’s going on,” said Hurgin.

Anecdotally, Hurgin said the Legal Advice and Referral Center is seeing more cases involving landlords wanting to make renovations or sell their buildings than before the pandemic. She said evictions for breaking the terms of a lease and the aforementioned safety reasons also seem to be increasing.

“I think increasingly as the CDC eviction moratorium has worn on since September (there’s been) a variety of eviction reasons we weren’t seeing previously,” said Hurgin, who is based out of Portsmouth but works on COVID-19 housing and unemployment cases across the state. “(Things like the) sale of a building, even if we can’t find it on any real estate site or MLS website, or a renovation where the tenant tells us they haven’t seen a handyman or contractor and the landlord hasn’t even told them what the renovations are going to be.”

Hurgin estimated “40% to 50%” of these cases involve clients who owe back rent, based on the 10 to 15 housing clients she’s speaking to a week and the 10 to 25 clients some of her more housing-focused colleagues assist a week.

“Certainly in the past month or two, it’s gone up,” she said. “You would expect under different circumstances those would just be nonpayment evictions and not based on sort of more broad reasons. Again, it’s really concerning.”

It’s added a new wrinkle, Hurgin argued, as their concerns grow about individuals and families who are struggling due to the economic impacts of the pandemic and will have difficulty finding new affordable housing given the Granite State’s shortage.

“The CDC moratorium was, at least at the beginning, a really huge help, a huge relief for families in New Hampshire,” said Hurgin. “Our clients were using it, they continue to use it appropriately. These are clients in really desperate circumstances who have nowhere to go and if they are evicted for these reasons will almost certainly be either in a shelter situation, (couch-surfing) with friends or family, or some other form of homelessness as the cases continue to increase. We certainly hope it’s extended … but the moratorium is only as good as its application, and we hope it continues to be applied in a fair way for New Hampshire.”

Hurgin noted landlords are eligible for assistance through COVID-19 housing relief programs like the $35 million New Hampshire is administering through its five community action programs. The state’s program distributes one-time grants – up to $2,500 – for past-due rent and utilities directly to landlords, not the tenants.

“I think the landlords should be paid rent, and the majority of the relief funds are going to them from the state of New Hampshire,” said Hurgin

Hurgin also argued “other assistance can be trusted to go to tenants to be spent appropriately,” pushing back on the suggestion that “low-income people can’t be trusted to spend money appropriately.”

“The people we talk to on a daily basis are forgoing WiFi for their children to do remote school. They’re trying to figure out which utilities they can pay to save their housing,” she said. “I think overall, people are desperate to save their housing right now and are using every single dime from whatever source to so.”