[Hpn] Homelessness spreads as evictions rise....

wtinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Sun, 2 Sep 2001 13:17:15 -0400


 http://www.fosters.com/news2001c/september/02/su0902h.htm
Sunday, September 2, 2001


 Homelessness spreads as evictions rise

 By BOB SANDERS

 Granite News Service

 Vicki Eichler has nothing against the landlady who is pushing her and her
nephew into a state of homelessness.

 Eichler gave up her teaching job in Pennsylvania to take care of her
brother, who has Lou Gehrig's disease. Her brother lived in the
three-bedroom house along the Lamprey River in Raymond for 14 years, and the
sympathetic landlady let him stay at a mere $600 a month.

 But now her brother is in a nursing home, fighting for his life; Eichler
and her brother's 16-year-son have to find some other arrangement.

 After all, the landlady could get twice as much rent as she has been
charging, and Eichler knows people who will put her up.

 "I'm homeless, but not really because I have friends who will allow me to
sleep on the couch," said Eichler. "But please don't blame the landlady.
She's such a sweetheart."

 Sweetheart or not, the result is the same. Landlords realize that they can
get a lot more rent for the properties they own, or earn a lot more money by
selling. Increasingly, they are asking, or telling, their tenants to leave.

 Last year, landlords filed 6,464 court actions against tenants, most of
them evictions due to unpaid rent. While that's slightly less than the
previous year, it is 19 percent more than in 1993 while the state was still
in the recession.

 Evictions are just the tip of the iceberg. Most tenants are like Eichler
and leave when they are told to go, rather than wait to be evicted, even if
the alternative might be homelessness. How many people are scrambling to
find affordable housing because of recent rent increases? Nobody knows.

 Some people might blame the recent round of layoffs for the situation, but
the unemployment rate remains low (3.4 percent in July) and it takes a while
before unemployment results in evictions. Besides, evictions peaked in 1999,
when the unemployment rate was around 2.7 percent, not in 1993, when it was
6.6 percent.

 The price of housing seems to be a more telling figure than unemployment
levels. Back in 1993 the median rent was $606. Last April, it was $818.
That's a 6 percent increase from the year before, more than twice the rate
of inflation. Vacancy rates statewide are an absurd 1 percent.

 Thanks to Portsmouth, Rockingham County had the largest increase. An
average two-bedroom apartment climbed from $624 in 1993 to $938 in 2000. A
three-bedroom averages $1,227.

 Steve Geller, executive director of Rockingham Community Action, is not
surprised that evictions are high.

 "This is the worst situation since I've been here, and I've been here 15
years, during the worst cycle of the 1980s. This is worse than that," said
Geller. "The housing crisis is the dark underbelly of the prosperity we have
experienced."

 District courts in the two largest cities recorded the most landlord
actions: Manchester and Nashua. That is to be expected. But the sharpest
increase has been elsewhere. In Somersworth's district court, evictions have
increased 179 percent since 1993, the largest increase among the larger
district courts.

 A quick look at the 35 latest case files in Somersworth shows that all but
four were rent-related evictions. While about half the tenants failed to
show up in court, others pleaded their cases, many asking for more time. One
was denied two more weeks to find another place. A second paid up, but too
long after the eviction notice. The $800 was returned.

 In the first half of this year, Laconia district court listed 167 landlord
actions. That's the fourth-highest number of evictions, trailing Manchester,
Nashua and Concord. Last year there were 366, a 144 percent increase from
1993, the second-sharpest increase in the state.

 Some of these people show up at the Salvation Army shelter in Laconia. The
shelter has always been full, but now it is turning away three to five
people a day as opposed to one or two, said Michelle French-Labrecque, the
shelter director. The recent layoffs might have contributed to the
onslaught, but French-Labrecque mainly blames the housing market.

 "It's a landlord's market," she said. "If someone gets a little bit behind,
there are so many people who need apartments. The landlords don't have to be
nice. If someone gets behind, he is evicted, plain and simple."

 Another reason behind the increase is that tenants are more likely to wait
to be evicted, because they can't find another apartment. But those who wait
are even in worse shape because landlords are less likely to rent to someone
with an eviction on their record.

 "Landlords are definitely ... pickier when they have 50 people on the
waiting list for an apartment," said French-Labrecque. "A friend of mine had
a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Concord and was not only able to rent it
for $1,000 a month. There were 150 calls on that one. For a one-bedroom!
That's outrageous."

 Increasingly, those who face eviction are not welfare recipients, but
people with jobs who just can't afford the rent.

 "A lot of people have jobs, but just don't make enough," Geller said.
"These are people who are living on the edge, week-to-week and then they
have a serious accident, or a car repair or a health problem. Or when winter
comes and they spend all the money staying warm, so they can't afford to pay
the rent, too."

 However, the number of landlord court actions has not risen in the hottest
housing markets: Portsmouth, the Hamptons, Exeter. Perhaps, said Geller,
because "all the people who couldn't afford to live here may already be
gone."

 And that, said Geller, could happen in other areas in the state. "Unless we
do something to deal with this housing crisis we could lose the lower end of
the population: those who are working in the retail sector at low-wage jobs
simply won't have a place to live."

 Community action groups do have some funds available to prevent evictions,
but the money must be used to help people through a crisis, not to delay the
inevitable. Have the groups received more federal money to keep up with the
increased need?

 "Heck no," Geller said. "We had to tighten up on eligibility requirements,"
he said.

 A tenant now has to have an actual eviction notice in hand to get help.

 "Now we are dealing with the most desperate people who have exhausted all
options. We are literally their last resort," Geller said.

 Unfortunately that's often when they call the Legal Advice and Referral
Center, which advises them on how to represent themselves in court. (Legal
Assistance of New Hampshire usually only represents those in subsidized
housing, not on the private market.)

 "People call us when things are in a crisis," said Tom Fredenburg, staff
attorney for the referral center.

 And those calls are coming more often. Last year the center received 855
calls, up nearly 7 percent from the year before. Fredenburg suspects that in
this market, an impending eviction is more of a crisis than before.

 "In other years they wouldn't call us if they were losing their housing, if
they could find another place," he said. "But with the vacancy rates so low,
they don't have that option. They know that and they are much more
desperate."

 Another reason behind the increase is the change in the eviction law two
years ago. Landlords can now file for back rent the same time they are
filing for eviction. They used to have to file for the back rent separately
in small claims court.

 In any case, the calls are often too late to do anything about it.

 "A lot of times we talk to people the day before the hearing, and there is
not much that can be done at that point," he said.

 The tenant does have a fighting chance in eviction court, Fredenburg said.
As landlords have often complained, "this is one of the few areas of the law
that not following the procedure properly can get an eviction dismissed: not
giving the tenant the right amount of time and not serving them properly."

 This has often led to landlord complaints about the difficulty of getting
rid of undesirable tenants. However, for those who are not paying their
rent, it's often a matter of time. The landlord whose case gets dismissed
simply has to do it again.