Dozens facing eviction in Lawrence following end of national moratorium; loosened requirements aim to get rental assistance out faster
photo by: Rochelle Valverde
Eric Schindling said it was almost like a country-western song: His dog died, a storm blew a tree limb onto his car, and then on a sunny day in July 2020, a driver hit him while he was in the middle of a crosswalk. The medical and other bills piled up.
And then the eviction notice came.
“I was middle-class all my life in sales, retail,” Schindling said. “And then all of a sudden this happened, and it shows how fast someone can go from safe to almost homeless.”
Schindling, 67, said he receives Social Security, sells a bit of his own artwork and previously made some money organizing and promoting music shows. He said he still feels young and is open to other jobs, but since the accident it’s been difficult for him to stand for long periods, which rules out many of the sales and retail management jobs he’s qualified for. He said the federal stimulus payments and the initial distributions of pandemic rental assistance helped him stay afloat for a while, but he’s now two months behind on his rent. He received an eviction notice earlier this month, and on Friday, dressed in a black collared shirt with his white hair pulled back in a small ponytail, he attended his first hearing.
Schindling is one of dozens of Lawrence residents currently being evicted after the end of the national eviction moratorium about a month ago. A Journal-World review of cases filed in Douglas County District Court found that 44 evictions were filed in August and 36 have been filed so far in September. Programs distributing federal pandemic assistance have recently made it easier for renters to get the millions in aid that is available for those whose income has been affected by the pandemic, but advocates say it will take more than that to resolve all the issues that renters face.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent related to the pandemic that was meant to last through Oct. 3. But the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the moratorium on Aug. 26, allowing those evictions to resume. Under the moratorium, which had been in place in some form since last year, any unpaid rent still accrued, and following the court’s decision landlords could begin evicting tenants for nonpayment, even when the tenant’s loss of income was related to the pandemic.
Joel Gallegos and Kai Hamilton, through their involvement with the tenant advocacy group Renters Together, have been canvassing apartment complexes and mobile home parks in Lawrence to make sure tenants are informed of their legal rights and aware of local resources and pandemic relief programs, such as the Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance (KERA) program. Still, both said processing delays with KERA have left some tenants waiting for several weeks for rent and utility assistance, and they have heard of landlords who have refused to accept emergency rental assistance or cooperate on the application process for the federal rental assistance program.
Gallegos and Hamilton said almost everyone they’ve spoken to who is facing eviction had some kind of income loss or economic impact related to the pandemic. Gallegos, who is involved with Renters Together through the Lawrence Democratic Socialists of America housing justice work group, said a common situation is that people have continued to work, but perhaps missed some work or had to reduce their hours for one reason or another, including disruptions in child care or school, and have not been able to catch up from that loss of income.
“We’re hearing from a lot of people that all it took was maybe a couple weeks of not getting as much money as usual and they got behind and it kind of snowballed,” Gallegos said. “Those late fees start adding up really quick.”
The Journal-World’s review indicated the evictions filed the past couple of months are approximately on par with the level of evictions before the pandemic. For instance, there were 55 evictions filed in August 2019, compared to the 44 that were filed last month and the 36 filed so far in September. However, many leases in Lawrence run from August through July, and Housing Stabilization Collaborative program manager Gabi Sprague said some landlords and property managers opted not to renew the leases of tenants who owed back rent.
“Because the lease was ending, they used the way they could avoid the moratorium and the court system with,” Sprague said.
In addition to the nonrenewal of leases and evictions that have been filed in district court, Hamilton said she also knows of one landlord who gave verbal warnings to some residents who were behind on their rent but did not actually file an eviction through the court system as required. Hamilton said bad credit or prior evictions have severely limited where some people are able to rent, and those facing eviction have a lot of uncertainty about where they will go if forced to leave their homes.
“We see a lot of people struggling to find housing that they qualify for and can afford,” Hamilton said. “That puts them in very vulnerable situations with their landlords.”
Schindling said he’d only fallen a couple of months behind on his rent. However, in addition to two months of back rent at about $600 per month, he said he was charged hundreds of dollars in late fees, bringing his total debt to his landlord to about $1,800. He also owes about $600 in back utility bills. Medical issues related to the accident have created additional debt. Even after receiving an insurance settlement, he estimated he owes $10,000 to $15,000 in medical bills.
Schindling said he’s had to have two surgeries so far, and is still suffering swelling and mobility issues related to the accident that affect his ability to find additional work.
“I still have maybe another surgery to go,” he said. “I’m trying to find a place to work, but right now new problems keep popping up.”
Rent and utility assistance programs
For those facing eviction, recent changes in requirements for federally funded rental and utility assistance aim to help get that money out quickly to those who need it.
The Kansas Housing Resources Corporation was awarded two installments of approximately $150 million of emergency rental assistance from federal pandemic relief packages, and so far it has provided about $41.5 million in rental, utility and internet assistance through the KERA program, according to Executive Director Ryan Vincent. The aid is available to Kansans who have been financially impacted by the pandemic and can be distributed through 2025.
Vincent said applications have indeed been taking weeks to process, but that changes in federal guidelines should make the application process simpler and faster, and that other changes aim to ensure that aid gets quickly to those who need it. Under new guidance from the U.S. Treasury, Vincent said instead of providing documentation of income, COVID hardship and risk of housing instability, applicants can now self-attest to those requirements and only need to provide a copy of their signed lease and identification.
“The self-attestation has been huge for us being able to really speed up the processing,” Vincent said.
Vincent said even with a significant increase in applications since the moratorium ended, the program is able to get money out the door in about four weeks after receiving a completed application. He said the applications of those who have gotten an eviction notice can now be escalated, which allows KERA to get emergency assistance out to those people in a matter of days.
There have also been some changes to address landlords who do not respond to tenants’ requests to coordinate on the application. Typically the program sends the assistance directly to landlords or property management companies, but Vincent said in cases where landlords are uncooperative, the program can arrange to send the assistance to the tenant instead. Instead of choosing to evict or not renew leases, Vincent urged landlords to work with the program so they get paid for the back rent that is owed to them.
Vincent said the program is currently processing $2 million to $3 million in assistance to 500 households per week. For those who have already been evicted, he said KERA continues to operate its Bridge to Housing Stability program in conjunction with community nonprofits. The program provides same-day motel vouchers and other assistance to help get people rehoused.
Regarding the level of evictions in Lawrence, Sprague, the program manager for the Housing Stabilization Collaborative, said she thinks the rental and other assistance that’s been available has helped the community avoid seeing increases in evictions when compared to 2019. She said that although it’s hard to track how many evictions have been avoided, she estimates it’s in the hundreds.
Other housing issues
Earlier this month, the Douglas County Commission used part of its American Rescue Plan Act funding to provide $125,000 in rent and utility assistance to the Housing Stabilization Collaborative with the aim of getting aid out faster to those who needed it, and Sprague said that money could be used on an emergency basis to help avoid evictions.
The Housing Stabilization Collaborative is a partnership among several Lawrence and Douglas County nonprofits that was formed during the coronavirus pandemic and works to prevent homelessness by providing rent assistance and case management. Sprague said both tenants and landlords have been bogged down with the previous reporting requirements for KERA, and the changes to get the aid out faster are crucial to avoid more evictions.
“I think we’re going to start seeing the ramifications if we can’t get emergency rental assistance funding out more quickly to these folks,” Sprague said. “Or if the moratorium does not get extended or reinstated, I think we’re going to start seeing more and more of that in the next month or so.”
Sprague also emphasized that evictions are not going to go away, and the community will need to continue to address them and the issues faced by those who are displaced from their housing. She said local government leaders need to have conversations about loosening the barriers and restrictions on the rental application process.
“Evictions were an issue before the pandemic, so we need to be talking to our county and city representatives about ways to alleviate this in the long term,” Sprague said.
As he navigates his eviction and the Lawrence rental market, Schindling has been seeing some of those barriers firsthand.
Schindling said his landlord already told him over the summer that his lease wasn’t going to be renewed, and he said with the financial pressures of both his rent and his medical bills, he could no longer afford to live in his current apartment anyway. Schindling has lived in the Lawrence or Kansas City area off and on since the early 1970s and said he wanted to stay in Lawrence — he spoke fondly of putting on music shows at the Outhouse back when it was still a venue and crossing paths with characters such as Beat writer William Burroughs — and tried looking for another apartment in town.
However, after paying $30 to $40 application fees for four Lawrence apartments and being denied because of his recently tarnished credit, he has decided to cut his losses. He said he couldn’t find a place in Lawrence that didn’t require a credit score of at least 600 for people without a cosigner, and that even if he had a cosigner, that person would be required to earn several times the monthly rent.
“Last year, my credit went from about 700 to below 500, because I wasn’t able to pay bills and I was late on paying bills,” Schindling said. “You cannot lease in this town without either 600 or more, or they say if you have someone to co-sign with you. Well, I’m 67 years old.”
Schindling said he also went to the local housing authority, but there was a long waiting list for Section 8 housing. In the absence of other options, he said he’s signed a lease for an old three-bedroom house in Topeka for $750 per month, and plans to live there with a few roommates, hopefully making his share of rent only $250. He said his plan for his Lawrence apartment is just to get out quickly before he is charged another month’s rent.
“I didn’t really want to move to Topeka — I like Lawrence — but I pretty much have to,” Schindling said.
More information about eligibility criteria and a link to apply to the KERA program is available on the program website, kshousingcorp.org. Information about the Housing Stabilization Collaborative program is available on the United Way of Douglas County website, unitedwaydgco.org/housing-stabilization-collaborative.