New effort seeks to prop up federal rental assistance program

Shaheen, Kuster, Shea-Porter back bill to continue subsidies for rural housing tenants

Three-quarters of the members of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation are sponsoring a bill that would ensure that low-income tenants in rural areas continue to have access to a federal rental assistance program that is seen by proponents as essential.

The bill, known as the Rural Housing Preservation Act, is being sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and U.S. Reps. Carol Shea-Porter and Annie Kuster, all New Hampshire Democrats, along with Sen. Tina Smith and U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, both Minnesota Democrats.

The bill, they say, is aimed at making sure the tenants, who are largely elderly, disabled and live in rural areas continue to receive rural housing vouchers through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Housing Service.

The vouchers, said Elissa Margolin, director of Housing Action NH, are “really critical to a lot of low-income rural residents of New Hampshire. The program has been really beneficial to rural communities in New Hampshire and elsewhere.”

“It’s important to remember that many rural areas have affordable housing challenges too,” she said. “USDA’s Rural Development programs have been critical to providing many of New Hampshire’s most vulnerable residents an affordable home.”

The rental assistance comes through the USDA’s 515 Direct Program. Under the program, vouchers are given to tenants of buildings whose owners have received mortgage assistance through the USDA.

The program was created in 1974, and since the rental assistance is connected to the mortgage, when the mortgage matures, the assistance disappears. The problem has grown more acute in recent years as more of those mortgages mature, leaving previously subsidized tenants without anymore assistance.

In 2016, after the problem first came to the fore, Congresswoman Kuster wrote and introduced similar legislation to update the 515 program. At the time, a letter sent by housing advocacy organizations around New England, including Margolin, listed as at risk 88 New Hampshire housing projects with a total of 2,706 units.

‘Few housing options’

Margolin said the 515 program has been essential in providing affordable housing to residents of rural areas in New Hampshire.

“If you are in a rural place, often there are very few housing options. In many places, the 515 property is the only option,” she said.

The Rural Housing Preservation Act is a package of changes aimed at making the 515 program sustainable, she said – updates that she said are “needed to ensure residents living in Rural Development properties are not displaced, and New Hampshire keeps these housing options.”

The bill would decouple rental assistance from the term of a mortgage, allowing USDA to renew rental assistance for a property regardless of the length of the mortgage, and it would make it easier for non-profit entities to acquire 515 properties.

It also would allow the continuation of 515 vouchers to residents who receive rental assistance and live in properties with prepaid or maturing loans, while ensuring the values of housing vouchers are flexible so they can provide assistance to beneficiaries in higher cost areas.

Adding flexibility is key, said Margolin.

For instance, under programs through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, displaced tenants receive a voucher that can be used at another property. But under current USDA rules, she said, if a 515 mortgage matures and the tenant is displaced the tenant doesn’t receive another voucher for another property.

“When that happens we need protections in place to protect the tenants,” she said.

Margolin added another way the bill should be welcomed in New Hampshire.

“Where we are in the housing market in New Hampshire, we’re trying hard to diversify our housing stock, and the last thing you want to do is lose this stock that‘s currently affordable to vulnerable populations. It could be really awful. I mean you’re looking at shelters and nursing home care.”

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