Valley News: Kuster Proposes Housing Fix
Lebanon — Hundreds of thousands of low-income renters in rural areas throughout the country could see a steep increase to their housings costs, if a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., is not approved, Kuster said in announcing the bill on Friday.
“This is a tsunami of sorts,” said Dean Christon, executive director of New Hampshire Housing at the press conference where the announcement was made. “It’s not over the crest of the horizon just yet, but it’s out there.”
Kuster said she was inspired to create the bill by the drama that unfolded last year over what was then known as the Pine Tree Lane Apartments, when the expiration of certain benefits granted under the USDA’s Rural Rental Housing Program threatened the housing assistance of residents in its 55 units. The crisis was averted in November, when Upper Valley affordable housing developer Twin Pines Housing Trust purchased the apartments from the estate of David Hodges Sr. with a $6.8 million loan from the USDA Rural Development program.
“Three hundred and forty four thousand people across the nation, disabled, seniors, families, soon — starting in the next few months and continuing over the next several years — are going to find themselves in the same situation,” Kuster said. “We wanted to come up with a long-term framework to solve the problem.”
Kuster addressed her remarks to a small crowd made up primarily of housing advocates and elected officals in the community room of the Kilton Public Library, before touring the apartments, which are now called the Village at Crafts Hill.
The bill seeks to fill a hole in aid provided under the Rural Rental Housing Program, which since the 1970s has provided housing assistance to low-income rural residents for as long as there is a mortgage on the property on which they live.
Over the next 10 years, said Kuster, 11,500 properties will see their property loans paid, or their mortgages mature; in each case, the housing assistance for the people who live there will expire.
Kuster’s bill, the Rural Housing Preservation Act, will give the USDA more flexibility in offering assistance in higher cost areas. It also allows the USDA to “decouple” the mortgage condition, so that it could renew rental assistance for a property regardless of the length of the mortgage.
Another provision in the bill would make permanent the MPR Program, which purchases and renovates properties in the USDA program.
Kuster said the housing assistance vouchers provided under the bill would be a method of last resort, only used by the USDA after efforts to find partnerships with agencies like Twin Pines Housing Trust had failed.
Because there are no projections about how many vouchers would be issued, Kuster said she was unsure how much the legislation would cost.
She said the bill would help to keep down other societal costs, by reducing the amount of law enforcement and emergency health care services used by people who would otherwise be homeless.
The bill will be introduced by Kuster into the House of Representatives, and a companion bill will be introduced into the Senate by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.
Kuster said the bill’s chance of becoming law will increase as more legislators get calls from residents who are facing the same crisis that Lebanon saw last year.
“This is sort of like a faucet. As the trickle starts to increase over time, more and more residents will face this piece of paper that says you have to move out,” she said. “More and more people will call their representatives and say ‘what are we going to do,’ and more and more people will sign onto this legislation.”
Housing advocates at the event praised the bill, which they said will prevent a loss of low-income rural housing that took decades to establish.
The presence of Dartmouth College, Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and various professional employers carries many benefits to the community, said Christon, but it also puts tremendous pressure on the local rental housing market.
“We have a vacancy rate across our state of 2 percent,” he said. “The national average is 6 percent. A healthy market has rates in the area of 4 or 5 percent. And in this area, it’s actually lower than 2 percent.”
The end result is that more area residents are putting more of their paychecks into housing costs, which not only makes it difficult for them to make ends meet, but also takes money away from other sectors of the local economy, said Elissa Margolin, director of Housing Action NH. Margolin said 68 percent of residents spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing.
After the event, Kuster visited a couple of residents at the Village at Crafts Hill.
In one apartment, Debbie and Weldon Thurston, who have lived there for less than two years, said they were appreciative of the assistance they received.
“We’re very comfortable here,” Debbie Thurston said. “We really are.”
At another apartment, before asking for Kuster’s autograph, Mona Weeks said her unit had received all-new, weathertight windows since the housing trust took over the property.
“They’re starting to clean this up, big time,” she said. Weeks has lived in the complex for 20 years, she said, but had never seen this level of attention paid to the care of the property. “I’ve seen the maintenance people up here. It’s been unreal.”
Kuster said the bill would likely be taken up by the U.S. House Agricultural Committee, where she is a member.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3211