Demand for rent assistance isn’t going anywhere, but Douglas County housing agencies are trying to offer other forms of help

photo by: Douglas County

The Douglas County Commission listens to a presentation about housing and human services and landlord engagement during its Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023 meeting.

High demand for rent and utility assistance isn’t going anywhere, but community housing agencies are doing what they can to offer other forms of help, Douglas County leaders heard this week.

At the Douglas County Commission’s meeting on Wednesday, housing and human services manager Gabi Sprague said that the county’s Housing Stabilization Collaborative has about $873,000 in rent and utility assistance funding to distribute through the end of the year — enough for roughly $75,000 per month. That’s a steep decline from the past two years, when the county was receiving millions in state funds to help people pay their rent and utility bills.

Over the past two years, Douglas County received nearly $20 million from the Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance program. But that program, which began as part of the state’s pandemic relief efforts, was only meant to be temporary, and it came to an end a couple of weeks ago.

Sprague told commissioners that the HSC is trying to do the best it can with its remaining money, and that’s part of the reason that it decided to change how it selects aid recipients. As the Journal-World previously reported, the agency has switched from a first-come, first-served system to a lottery system.

With the drop in funding, the old system was only able to help people at the front of the line, which meant people had to apply in a very short window of time if they wanted a chance at receiving aid. Sprague said the first-come, first-served system was seeing such high demand that the HSC’s funding pool for the entire month of January was earmarked within nine minutes of the application opening that month.

The lottery system prevents the scramble for assistance at the start of the month by giving people about two weeks to apply and then randomly selecting applicants to receive aid. But it doesn’t reduce the demand or increase the amount of money the agency has to distribute. Sprague said the HSC ended up receiving 364 applications for a total requested amount of $561,000 earlier this month in its first use of the lottery system. That’s more than seven times the funds that were available for this month.

“It feels really daunting knowing that we only have $873,000 to distribute until the end of this year,” Sprague said. “… We really just need more money for rent and utility assistance. That $561,000 number for that 364 applications weighs heavy on my mind often.”

Commissioner Patrick Kelly acknowledged that it was likely frustrating to go from the dramatically larger funding pool of the past couple of years to a restricted pool today. He asked what was being done to help people who weren’t selected, and whether they were being directed to other resources in the community.

“There’s a million reasons that people might be in this situation,” Kelly said. “How are we helping connect them to other services?”

Sprague said that was happening through the HSC’s partner agencies, and that the HSC also points folks to the Lawrence Public Library’s resource guide.

Kelly also asked whether racial equity factors into the lottery system. According to census data, less than 5% of Douglas County’s population is Black, but the HSC’s presentation on Wednesday said that about 22% of the rent and utility assistance from April 2021 to January 2022 went to households whose applicants identified themselves as Black.

Sprague said that the lottery system doesn’t adjust for racial equity right now — the applications are chosen using a random number generating website. However, she said the system would eventually be adjusted to provide more targeted aid. For example, she said Black and Indigenous tenants and other people of color are evicted from their homes at greater rates than white tenants, so the system could help address that problem by prioritizing applications from people with eviction or court date notices.

“It’s difficult to move through changes so fast with a program, particularly when we have so many partners involved with varying ideals,” Sprague said. “We’re all moving through it at a pace together, and I think that we’re going to be able to prioritize folks. I know that Housing and Human Services, we specifically have conversations in this office about how best to reach folks, particularly considering racial equity.”

Sprague and the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority’s landlord liaison, Mariel Ferreiro, also talked about another alternative to rent assistance — a mediation pilot program for tenants and their landlords that launched in October 2022 and is facilitated by conflict resolution nonprofit Building Peace, the Housing Authority and the county’s Housing and Human Services office.

That program has been gaining some traction lately. It received more applications earlier this month than it had during its entire existence before that — but the total number of applications it has received is still small, only about 22 applications across nearly six months. Sprague said that hasn’t been for lack of trying. She said there was an effort in 2022 to inform both landlords and tenants that the program was available.

“It really is an effective way to keep evictions out of the courtroom, where a person can get an eviction on their record and that be a barrier to housing for a really long time,” Sprague said. “So we’re looking to bolster this as much as possible, although I think we need to incentivize all parties in doing the mediation.”

Sprague said one thing she thinks is missing in the community is a form of legal representation for tenants. When strategies like rent and utility assistance or mediation fail or aren’t appropriate, she said that kind of “pressure” at local courts is important, since landlords often bring legal representation of their own.

Douglas County leaders have heard community members suggest protections that would grant tenants facing eviction the right to an attorney, similar to a court-appointed attorney in criminal trials. Nearby Kansas City, Missouri, passed such an ordinance in late 2021.

For now, Ferreiro said both she and Sprague were feeling optimistic about where the mediation program was heading, and Commissioner Karen Willey said she could see the program’s potential for “managing the disconnect” between landlords and tenants.

“I love that you’re already working in that space, and I’d encourage you to try and keep that lens as broad as possible as you have those conversations and get that word out to landlords, which is hard,” Willey said. “… I’m excited for that work and the direction for it.”


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