Lawmakers to propose making pandemic rental assistance program permanent

Housing reforms could return in 2023 through the NM Senate

By: - August 24, 2022 5:00 am

The state Senate on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021 at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

A slate of housing reforms that would make it harder for landlords to evict people and make permanent the emergency rental assistance program necessitated by the COVID pandemic will be introduced in the 2023 legislative session, according to a presentation to lawmakers on Monday.

In 2021 and 2022, Reps. Andrea Romero (D-Santa Fe) and Angelica Rubio (D-Las Cruces) introduced a bill designed to balance the rights of tenants and landlords by amending the state Uniform Owner-Resident Relations Act.

The legislation would have allowed tenants 11 days to get current on rent, instead of three days currently allowed in the law.

It also would have allowed tenants three weeks to prepare for court and find legal help, instead of 10 days, and 15 to 20 days to get new housing and move if those people were evicted, instead of one week.

It also would have given tenants the opportunity to avoid eviction if they can pay what they owe at any point prior to eviction, require court summons to explain tenants’ rights and their option to get rental assistance, and prevent landlords from refusing to renew a lease during a declared state of emergency.

Landlords refuse emergency rent money and Section 8 vouchers

Both versions of the bill were widely supported by advocates, the Apartment Association of New Mexico and the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts, said Maria Griego, director of economic equity at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, in a hearing with the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee on Monday.

In each of those years, the House of Representatives and the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee approved the legislation, “but it never made it to the finish line,” Griego said.

Karen Meyers, a consumer lawyer in Albuquerque and former head of the Consumer Protection Division at the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, told lawmakers in early 2022 that the unprecedented financial assistance during the pandemic helped families throughout New Mexico preserve their housing and utilities.

Housing bill stalls again at end of 30-day session

Griego said on Monday there has been discussion at the federal level of making rental assistance a long-term federal program for states to administer, so there is a need for New Mexico to reform its laws to be prepared to effectively deliver that money.

So next year, Rubio and Romero will introduce the third iteration of the housing reforms which will codify into state law the rental assistance program currently administered by emergency rental assistance director Donnie Quintana through the Department of Finance and Administration.

Rep. Gail Chasey (D-Albuquerque) said given that the House has passed the bill twice, it might have a better chance of passing if it goes to the Senate first. She suggested that Sen. Katy Duhigg (D-Albuquerque) figure out who would be a good senator to sponsor the legislation.

Duhigg asked what lawmakers need to make the program workable in New Mexico.

Griego said the absolute need is extending the court hearing schedule timeframe longer than the current 7 to 10 day deadline.

Navigators in the program told Griego that often those hearings happen before seven days. Clerks get the filing and schedule the hearing on the same day, perhaps because they aren’t properly trained.

“We need more time before the judges must conduct the hearing,” Griego said.

That gives time for navigators to reach out to the parties and ask if they’ve applied for rental assistance, Griego said. If they haven’t, they can get them connected to the application and if they have, figure out what’s missing to get it approved. If it is approved, they can tell the landlord payment is on its way, which usually results in the landlord dismissing the eviction case, Griego said.

NM evictions at 65% of normal rate, Supreme Court Justice says at White House event

Program officials had compromised with the apartment association to allow 21 days instead of the maximum of 10 to schedule a hearing, Griego said, which would build in time for the parties to work with the navigators.

She said New Mexico was already in a housing crisis before the COVID pandemic, which compounded economic hardship for many New Mexicans.

Between 2018 and 2019, the rate of homelessness in New Mexico increased by 27%, the highest increase in the country. It also had the highest increase in chronic homelessness at 56% and some of the shortest eviction timelines for nonpayment of rent, Griego said.

“Courts have expressed existing timelines of 10 days to schedule hearings once filed make it impossible to implement programs known to be effective to prevent evictions,” Griego said.

The state’s Eviction Prevention and Diversion Program has been hugely successful. Ninety percent of cases that go to mediation end in a mutually beneficial agreement or settlement for landlords and tenants, Griego said.

According to the Princeton Eviction Lab, eviction rates in New Mexico are down from pre-pandemic levels. Griego said the decrease is entirely due to the Emergency Rental Assistance programs that have emerged and the newly implemented Eviction and Diversion Program.

New Mexico received $352 million from two federal spending bills for rental and utility assistance, Griego said, and delivered more than $152 million to 45,000 households for rent, utilities, and costs related to emergency housing and moving.

New Mexico has until September 2025 to use the federal money.

New Mexico Chief Supreme Court Justice Shannon Bacon spearheaded a program in New Mexico aimed to replace the state’s court-issued eviction ban. The program empowers judges to pause eviction proceedings if landlords and tenants agree to mediation and enlists a group of court navigators to help parties with emergency rental funds and court processes.

During a virtual White House event on Aug. 2, Bacon said eviction filings have stayed below average rates even though the state and federal eviction bans were lifted.

“In no way is the mission accomplished,” Griego said. “It would be a shame for our state not to capitalize on the great progress that has been made, and to not make this a lasting and sustainable program.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.