April rent subsidy payments missed

The Dukes County Regional Housing Authority has notified 35 Island landlords that it was not able to pay subsidies for its rental assistance program on April 1, when the payments were due. All of the money raised by the Island Affordable Housing Fund and earmarked for the rental assistance program went toward paying off a short-term loan the housing authority utilized to pay subsidies for the previous month, leaving nothing for April subsidies.

The housing fund continues to raise money for the rental assistance program, and the town of Aquinnah is attempting to make a significant contribution that may allow the housing authority to make a partial payment to landlords in the next few days.

While working week to week to make rental subsidy payments for the final three months of this fiscal year, the housing authority is working to secure a substantial increase in town funding at annual town meetings, which begin next week. “I am anxiously awaiting the results of town meeting,” said Peter Stam, a Vineyard Haven landlord who is part of the rental assistance program. Mr. Stam said he could survive a couple of months without the subsidy payment that helps his tenant pay the monthly $1,100 rent bill. “If they don’t resolve this, she’ll either have to come up with the full rent, or she’s going to have to leave. I would hate to do that. I think the housing authority is trying its best to support the tenants and the landlords. It’s a more difficult job than people realize.”

If voters approve warrant articles in the various towns totaling $560,000 in Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds, the housing authority could assure stability for the program for the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1, according to housing authority executive director David Vigneault.

Mr. Vigneault points out that so far, no tenants have been displaced. “So much is riding on the town meeting votes,” he said. “If anything, it just puts a sharper focus on the need. It’s more than doubling the traditional level of town support for this program. It’s for one year, and that year would give us some time to work through the difficulties.”

More tough times

Until this month, the housing authority has made subsidy payments to all landlords, using a combination of additional funds appropriated by Island towns, and by using its $125,000 line of credit. April marks the first time the landlords have not received subsidy payments on time, with the exception of last November, when the Island Affordable Housing Fund’s financial difficulties were made public. By the middle of November, payments were made in full with donations raised by the housing fund.

The part of the program that has been funded in the past by the housing fund requires approximately $20,000 in private donations each month to cover subsidy payments. According to Mr. Vigneault, the housing fund was able to raise approximately $8,000 for the rental assistance program last month, but that money went to pay off a short-term loan used for the March subsidy payments.

“We’re getting money, we’re just not getting money at the rate to offset the expectations everybody has,” said Ewell Hopkins, executive director of the housing fund. “We’re definitely behind the eight ball, but we haven’t thrown in the towel. We have a traditional cycle and season of giving. The most challenging time to raise money is the time we’re coming out from now. Nobody’s stepping up and saying we can do a better job than the fund. Our situation is no different than any other nonprofit. I see signs of hope. I have no reason to believe that the ability for the Island Affordable Housing Fund to raise money is any less than it has ever been.”

Mr. Vigneault said the housing authority has used its line of credit five times in the past 18 months. He said this month, there is no capacity left in its short-term line of credit to pay the subsidy payments on time, and without a strong expectation that funds would be forthcoming from the housing fund or other sources, it would not use its line of credit anyway.

“As disappointed as everybody is, I’m not shocked,” Mr. Vigneault said. “We will use our line of credit again when we once again have some certainty that the money is coming in, and when we have some line of credit available. We are working with the banks to increase the amount under our line.” Mr. Vigneault said he expects to hear within days whether the authority’s bank is willing to increase its line of credit to $150,000. He said the line of credit was obtained in order to pay extraordinary bills, for rehabilitation of properties, or emergencies. “When we use it for this other reason, that’s actually been quite a stress.”

Aquinnah steps up

Town officials in Aquinnah worked this week to contribute Community Preservation Act money toward the rental assistance program. The funds could be used to partially fund subsidies in all Island towns.

“I just can’t imagine anything we can do that would be more effective,” selectman Camille Rose said. “I’m a great believer in subsidized rental housing. I think it’s what gives people an opportunity to save up to be able to afford a home.”

Derrill Bazzy, who serves on the Aquinnah housing committee and the town’s community preservation committee, said Aquinnah plans to release $2,000 very shortly, and to make arrangements to lend an additional $6,000 toward the rental assistance program later this month.

“The $6,000 was funds we didn’t need to use right away, so essentially we were able to loan that to the housing authority to get them through the short term,” Mr. Bazzy said. “In the future when fundraising is better, that will be reimbursed. We wanted to do whatever we could. It’s a huge priority.”

Currently, only one Aquinnah family participates in the housing authority’s rental assistance program, and another will begin shortly, according to Mr. Bazzy. He said when town meeting voters authorized the CPA funds last year, they did so with a certain amount of flexibility. “They were voted as fits within this category, in support of housing generally,” Mr. Bazzy said. “We often end up voting some of our funds with a certain amount of flexibility. This money was set aside for the purpose of encouraging rentals, but it wasn’t specific to a town. It was presented as something with flexibility.”

“That’s one of the interesting thing about the CPA act,” Ms. Rose said. “The money could be used anywhere in the state. We’re very sensitive to the needs of working people here. It keeps the community alive, which is why you need subsidized rental housing.”

Mr. Bazzy said it could take several more weeks for town officials to release the money. Mr. Vigneault said if the town’s commitment is assured, and if the housing authority’s line of credit is extended, it may be able to use its short term borrowing capacity to begin sending partial payments to landlords within the next few days.

Rents and reservations

Two participating landlords offered high praise this week for the rental assistance program. Peter Stam receives subsidies for two apartments. “My experience in collecting rent from tenants on the Island in general has been difficult, because most of the people are working on marginal jobs,” Mr. Stam said. “We’re always trying to stretch through the winter. Having two tenants that in the past have had a reliable partial income has been terrific.”

Cliff Meehan rents an apartment to an Edgartown family. “It’s a great program, and the people that are running it are unbelievable,” said Mr. Meehan. “They communicate with you all the time.” He said the past few months have been a little “up and down,” for him and his tenant.

“I told her we would work something out,” Mr. Meehan said. “I’m not going to kick the people out of the house. If you’re in the program, you’ve got to be a little understanding. It’s an unbelievable thing they can pull this off as long as they have.”

Mr. Stam also wants to keep his tenants and continue in the subsidy program, though he said the past few months have been difficult. “I was certainly surprised, and disappointed, because I thought when they signed the leases they knew they had the money available,” Mr. Stam said. “Along with a lot of other people I got an education about how fragile the funding is. What I’m doing is I’ve told the tenant I’m using her security deposit to pay the [subsidy]that’s not coming.”

Landlords sign a joint lease with the tenant and the housing authority. The tenant pays part of the rent, based on a formula tied to household income. The housing authority pays the rest, with private donations raised by the housing fund and other sources. Mr. Vigneault and Mr. Stam were unclear this week about whether a tenant is legally responsible to pay the full amount of rent, if the housing authority cannot meet its obligation to pay the subsidy.

“We would need more legal review on that,” Mr. Vigneault said. “There are different ways to read the lease and the contract. I hope we don’t find out, but if we do we’ll have some review.”