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Archive for Tuesday, March 12, 2002

Financial woes may end services

March 12, 2002

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When Bev and Ken Kuester's landlord surprised them by dividing their house at 401 Maple St. into a duplex last fall, they looked everywhere for help with the resulting problems.

Among the issues: Sharing utilities  and the utility bills  with their new neighbors.

And so they called City Hall. The police. The Attorney General's Office. They even phoned the office of Gov. Bill Graves.

The police made a couple of reports but no charges were pressed. The city sent inspectors to the house, who ordered the landlord, Clyde Sherve, to fix some wiring and get permits for some renovations he had already done.

But the Kuesters said getting that action was a challenge.

"I'm tired of passing the buck. Everybody's been passing the buck," Bev Kuester said. "I'm sure we're not the only people in the state of Kansas to have landlord-tenant problems."

Sherve said he was fixing the problems cited by the city and trying to work with the Kuesters.

"Any problems I have with them, I'll work out with them," Sherve said.

Eventually, the Kuesters said, the buck got passed to one man who helped them more than any other: Cornell Mayfield Jr., a tenant-landlord counselor for Housing and Credit Counseling Inc.

"Mayfield has been extremely good about getting inspectors out here and making things happen," Ken Kuester said.

It's the kind of praise Mayfield is used to getting from landlords, tenants and city officials. There's a problem, though; HCCI is running out of money.

Educating renters, landlords

The nonprofit organization, which also has offices in Topeka, Manhattan and Emporia, arrived in Lawrence in 1995 at the invitation of and with financing from the city. City officials said just more than half of Lawrence's roughly 33,000 households were occupied by renters, a high rate driven by the presence of Kansas University.

Mayfield operates out of the United Way building at 2518 Ridge Court. He gave free assistance to more than 800 renters in 2001, mediating disputes with landlords, educating them about their rights and the proper procedures for ensuring those rights are enforced.

"You can't just withhold a rent check because you're not happy," he said. "That will get you evicted."

Mayfield also does preventive work, educating landlord and new renters to help them avoid pitfalls in the landlord-tenant relationship.

"A lot of people we talk to don't have the knowledge of how to handle things," he said.

High praise

And people on all sides say the program seems to work.

"The landlords speak highly of it," Mayor Mike Rundle said. "They say it helps them establish good relationships with and educate their tenants."

Keeping the program funded, however, has been more difficult. Mayfield said HCCI received $14,000 from the city's federal community development block grant funds for 2002, but that is being "drawn down." He is paying travel expenses out of his own pocket to stretch budget dollars, he said.

In February, he asked the Lawrence City Commission for $13,000 to take HCCI through the end of the fiscal year in July. Commissioners said they would consider possibilities, but haven't addressed the situation since.

"For right now, we're just hanging on and hoping that we get the funding," Mayfield said. "Otherwise, we'll have to shut down our Lawrence offices and rely on telephone calls. That wouldn't work too good, because we need to sit down in face-to-face meetings and look at documents."

Rundle said he wanted the city to support the program. A final audit of the city's 2001 budgets, due soon, should reveal if there's any money left over from last year, he said.

"We want to have a very comfortable cushion  the state allows you to budget 5 percent," Rundle said. "If we are far in excess of that, I think it's valid to think of setting aside some of that money for special purchases."

Rundle added the money could also be used to keep the mill levy down this budget year.

The Kuesters say they're worried about Mayfield's situation. He's "the one guy" to take action on their problems, they said.

"That would be terrible if that gets cut," Ken Kuester said. "Everybody you talk to refers you back to him."

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