GOP legislative leaders removed a ban on evictions in Kansas, triggering concerns of rising homelessness and a possible spike in COVID-19 cases. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
TOPEKA — Homeless shelters in Kansas metro areas are already seeing more requests for housing in the days after legislative leaders lifted a statewide ban on evictions.
Republican members of the Legislative Coordinating Council moved in late May to cut the moratorium off as they considered an extension to the state’s emergency disaster declaration. Democratic members of the panel and some activists characterized the move as premature and leaving Kansans in need in the cold.
While the ban has only been dropped for a week, the Wichita City Command Salvation Army is already experiencing a higher number of inquiries about housing than usual.
Jami Scott, the organization’s director of homeless services, said their shelters were not as filled as expected amid the pandemic, with evictions put on hold. Now she is hoping landlords will show some grace as they work alongside Kansans to address housing needs.
“It is important to be able to give people second chances,” Scott said. “Everyone had a really hard year last year, and it doesn’t matter if you are the tenant or the landlord — everyone went through things. We need to remember there is a whole story.”
According to a report provided to the U.S. Congress, homelessness increased in 2020 amid COVID-19 by 2.2% from 2019. Rates of unsheltered individuals and chronic homelessness saw even steeper rises, prompting concern about how an end to the eviction moratorium could cause even greater surges.
The Salvation Army in Wichita offers a 28-bed emergency shelter for single women and families with stays typically lasting 30-45 days. They also provide six apartments for transitional housing and rehousing, which people can stay in for three to six months while they work with a case manager to find work and permanent housing.
In some instances, the case worker will work alongside new tenants and landlords
Jill Skaggs, director of emergency and disaster social services for the Salvation Army in Wichita, said the organization has been helping those in need with federal funds received through the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department with rent and utility difficulties since March.
Skaggs is still recommending people apply for any federal funds that may still be available.
“Go talk to your landlord to try and work out a payment plan. Some will try and work with you. Others won’t,” Skaggs said. “There’s not going to be enough federal funding to help everybody that needs it. Do some research in your community of who might be able to help.”
Other nonprofits like United Way of the Plains in Wichita are already feeling the pressure from landlords. They expect the number of evictions to rise with each passing rent period.
The Salvation Army in Johnson County also is preparing for the surge.
Except for a small women’s program, there are no shelters in the county for single homeless adults that operate year-round. The Salvation Army is the only “freestanding shelter” in Johnson County and can only accommodate 14 families at one time.
Researchers from the University of California-Los Angeles, University of California-San Francisco, Johns Hopkins University, Boston University and Wake Forest University School of Law found that states that allowed evictions to continue caused up to 433,700 excess cases of the virus between March and September before a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ban went into effect.
According to a March survey published by the Census Bureau, around 20% of adult renters said they did not pay rent during the previous month. About 33% of Black renters reported the same, a point of concern for John Nave, the vice president of the Kansas AFL-CIO and former Topeka City Council member.
In a Thursday meeting of the governor’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice discussing the use of American Rescue Plan Act relief funds, Nave hoped there could be some remedy to help curb this increase in homelessness.
“We’re going to see a big jump in people being kicked out of their homes, and what is the state Legislature going to do?” Nave said. “The impact of that is going to look different here within the weeks to come. With this funding coming out, is that going to address some of those issues?”
About $150 million of the state’s nondiscretionary relief funding is earmarked for an emergency rental assistance program.
With the eviction moratorium now expired, questions are also being asked of the efficiency of the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation, the state’s housing agency. According to a new dashboard looking at emergency rental assistance programs across the country, released by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Kansas has room to improve in four main program attributes.
Attributes include whether renters can self-attest to certain information, whether ERA programs are open to those receiving federal aid, and if the program accepts applications beyond federal income or unemployment requirements.
Advocates from Rent Zero Kansas, a coalition led by tenants pushing for affordable and fair housing, argued the most important attribute is whether assistance is sent directly to tenants or to landlords instead. Currently, neither Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance nor the housing corporation sends assistance directly to tenants.
Effective distribution of rental assistance is pivotal without an eviction moratorium, said Vince Munoz, an organizer with Rent Zero Kansas.
“The Kansas Housing Resources Corporation should follow the 75 other programs nationwide in sending relief directly to renters,” Munoz said. “This would help prevent landlords from arbitrarily declining rent payments from assistance, which we’ve seen happen recently in Manhattan.”
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