Olathe residents Sheryl and Gary Evert were among thousands of Kansans struggling to pay their rent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
They eventually sought assistance under the Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance program authorized by Congress and financed through federal coronavirus relief legislation. Under KERA, the Kansas Housing Resource Corporation, or KHRC, has granted $41.5 million in rental, utility and internet assistance to 7,800 eligible households across the state since March.
“My wife Sheryl and I are in our 70s, and before we received our KERA funding, life was really stressful,” Gary Evert said. “We didn’t know when we would be able to pay our landlord, but we remained patient.”
He said his questions about the application process were answered by KHRC staff operating from a processing center in Topeka.
“‘Take a breath,’ she said, ‘because it’s going to take several breaths before your application is processed.’ We’re all nervous, but when someone can calm you down and give you a sense of hope, it’s very comforting,” Gary Evert said.
Members of the Kansas Legislature have expressed concern about pace of federal funds moving to people in jeopardy of being evicted. During much of the pandemic, state or federal mandates protected people from being thrown out their homes. Those prohibitions have expired.
Sen. Rick Billinger, a Goodland Republican who chairs the Senate’s budget committee, said he was concerned by the volume of desperate people who couldn’t get access to emergency financial assistance through the state. He said state agencies should have been more nimble in responding to Kansans’ needs in the pandemic.
“It’s heart-wrenching when we get the emails … from folks who can’t get unemployment. They’re losing their house. They’re losing their car. They’re sleeping in sheds. They’re farming their kids out. It’s terrible. We’ve got all this money and all these programs,” Billinger said.
Representatives of organizations assisting the homeless have argued more COVID-19 relief should have been aimed at people who became homeless before the pandemic or lost their homes during the public health crisis. Questions have also been raised about the state government’s modest commitment to the homeless prior to the pandemic.
Ryan Vincent, executive director of the Kansas Housing Resource Corporation, said Kansas had received a total of $300 million in congressional appropriations for rental assistance under KERA. Congress authorized the aid program through 2025.
He said the state housing agency launched a marketing campaign to share information about KERA through traditional media, social media, television, radio and print. New computer software had to be developed and acquired to process the document-heavy applications. The state housing corporation had a staff of about 40 at outset of the pandemic but added 120 people to handle work related to KERA.
Few payments to renters or landlords were made in the two months after the program began in March. The majority of rental relief payments in Kansas have been sent in the past two months.
“It takes time to build capacity, to train, to make sure folks know what the complex federal rules are,” Vincent said. “Essentially, there’s almost exponential growth in our rate of processing these payments. We’re getting $2 million to $3 million out per week to about 500 households.”
An estimated 14,000 to 28,000 households in Kansas were behind on rent or in danger of being evicted. The state’s housing corporation has served more than 7,800 households, 3,200 landlords and 22o utility companies during the pandemic.
It’s too early to gauge success of the program because no one knows yet how many families will be saved from eviction and how many landlords will be made whole, Vincent said. In addition, he said, the measure of KERA shouldn’t be the percentage of $300 million already pushed out the door.
“Imagine someone gives you all of your grocery money through 2025 and then criticizes you for only spending a portion of it today. Your response rightly would be that you have grocery bills through 2025,” he said.
Before creation of KERA, the state set aside $18 million in federal COVID-19 emergency funding for a temporary rental assistance program that ran October to December 2020. That application process for that assistance was less stringent than the current program, Vincent said.
He said it was disappointing KHRC staff had been portrayed as “nameless, heartless bureaucrats” who don’t feel urgency in movement of KERA funding to households.
“I can’t imagine a more mission-focused and caring group of people dedicated to helping Kansans who are facing eviction than I have the honor of working with on my team at KHRC,” Vincent said. “Unfortunately, while we are working as hard as we can to meet the evictions that are out there, we can only use these dollars for eligible evictions. If they don’t have a COVID hardship, if they don’t meet the income requirements, if they aren’t able to provide us proof of residency, under the federal rules we can’t fund their application.”
He said Kansas had an underlying, systematic housing problem that was exacerbated by the pandemic. Kansas lawmakers should consider post-pandemic opportunities to work on the state’s lack of affordable housing, he said.
Mulvane landlord Zach Storm said the KERA program, which helps people with rent payments as well as expenses with electricity, gas, water, sewer and trash services, was effective in blunting the financial trauma for eligible households. Landlords with tenants behind on rent payments ought to apply to KERA, he said.
“I told my tenants who were behind on rent that ‘I’m not going to evict you, as long as you apply for the KERA program.’ Many of them have children, and this pandemic is something nobody planned on,” Storm said. “I’m doing what’s best for both them and me by having them apply.”
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