Millions in rental and utility assistance still available for Kansans as end of eviction moratorium nears

photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World File Photo

Houses in a neighborhood just west of downtown Lawrence are shown in this file photo from November 2011.

A nationwide ban on evictions due to the coronavirus pandemic is expected to expire Saturday, meaning that tenants who have fallen behind could soon be asked to pay their back rent or be forced to vacate their homes. However, those whose back rent is related to the pandemic can still take advantage of millions of dollars in assistance.

Congress has allocated nearly $47 billion in rental assistance that is supposed to help tenants pay off months of back rent, as the Associated Press reported. But through June, only about $3 billion of the first tranche of $25 billion had been distributed by states and localities.

That includes millions that are still available to Kansans who have fallen behind on their rent because of the pandemic. The Kansas Housing Resources Corporation was awarded $200 million in February in statewide rental and utility assistance through a federal coronavirus relief grant, and applications for the program opened March 15, according to a state announcement. The Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance (KERA) program is distributing the funding, and according to its website, it has only awarded about $21.7 million in assistance so far, meaning there is more than $178 million in assistance left.

A local housing counselor encouraged people who could face eviction to seek assistance from the KERA program.

Teresa Baker, interim executive director and program manager for Housing and Credit Counseling, said that once the moratorium was lifted, landlords could begin the eviction process, even for those who had lost income due to the pandemic. Under the moratorium, those who owed back rent related to job loss or other economic impacts of the pandemic — such as having to stay home with children who were doing virtual school — could not be evicted.

Baker said that throughout the pandemic the counseling center, which serves both Lawrence and Topeka, had not received a lot of calls from renters, but it is preparing for that to change now that the moratorium is expected to end.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we are trying to gear up in case we get a lot of phone calls,” Baker said.

The Biden administration announced Thursday that it would be allowing the nationwide ban on evictions, which was put in place last September by the CDC, to expire on Saturday, as the Associated Press reported. The administration argued that its hands were tied after the Supreme Court signaled it would only allow the moratorium to be extended through the end of July. Instead, the administration called on Congress to extend the moratorium, but that has not happened so far.

The center also works with landlords, and Baker said many have said they are trying to work with tenants who owe back rent. Baker encouraged tenants in that situation to try to reach out to their landlords and ask about a payment plan or other options before the eviction process begins.

When it comes to the eviction process, Baker explained that tenants could have anywhere between a few weeks and about a month to respond and avoid having to leave their home for nonpayment. She said the process begins with a notice to the tenant to pay or vacate within 72 hours, or three days. If payment isn’t made in full, then the landlord or property owner can file for the eviction on the fourth day. She said while the timeframe could vary depending on the city, a court hearing would be set in as little as a few weeks or as much as a few months. For those in Lawrence and Topeka, she said it’s usually about a month but could be less. Unless the tenant can dispute that they owe the money (in which case a court date will be set), the eviction is granted and the tenant will be told a date to vacate. Baker urged tenants in that situation to vacate by the deadline.

“We stress to follow that because we care and don’t want them to lose belongings,” Baker said. She said if tenants do not vacate by the deadline and wait until law enforcement serves a removal order, they will only have 10 or 20 minutes to get their personal belongings out of the property before the locks are changed.

However, for those whose back rent is related to the pandemic, Baker noted that the KERA program can pay up to 12 months of back rent as well as other housing-related expenses.

According to the KERA program website, to be eligible for the program, tenants must meet certain income requirements; at least one member of the tenant household must have experienced documented financial hardship as a result of the pandemic; and at least one member of the household must be at risk of becoming homeless or must be uncertain of where they will stay without housing assistance. The rent or bills must have been charged after April 1, 2020. In addition to going toward past-due rent, the assistance can cover up to three months of prospective rent at a time, even if the tenant does not owe back rent. Assistance can also go toward past-due or prospective utility or internet bills, as well as fees associated with past-due rent or bills. More information about eligibility criteria and a link to apply is available on the program website, kshousingcorp.org.

There are also programs and options available for those who have fallen behind on mortgage payments, including the ability to request forbearance. More information about that process and other resources are available on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development website, HUD.gov.

Baker said the center has both tenant and mortgage counselors, including HUD-certified counselors who can help with forbearance, and those who need assistance or have questions can call Housing and Credit Counseling at 800-383-0217.

Contact reporter Rochelle Valverde

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rvalverde@ljworld.com

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