CARES Act funds helped local program provide housing aid, but that assistance could soon disappear

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Thanks to federal aid, more than 1,000 Douglas County residents received housing support this year as the coronavirus pandemic caused many to lose income.

But with a new year coming and little new funding currently available, those residents may soon see that support disappear.

Leaders of organizations that oversee the Housing Stabilization Collaborative, a local housing and rent support program, said they were proud of how well the program used its more than $1 million allotment from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, also known as CARES.

However, the funds from that package had to be spent before the end of the year. That means those funds cannot be used to help in 2021, and the new year will pose new problems for those receiving support if another similar aid package is not provided.

“It’s definitely going to be needed,” said Dana Ortiz, executive director for Family Promise of Lawrence. “It’s too critical. We’ve got to help households stay housed, or we’re just going to have such a frightening crisis.”

In September, Ortiz and Rebecca Buford of Tenants to Homeowners, the two leaders running the program, wrote in their application for CARES funding that they expected to help about 200 households with the HSC program’s original $850,000 allotment, the Journal-World reported. They soon discovered the need was greater than expected, and they ended up helping more than 500 households. Ortiz noted that those homes housed more than 1,000 people, including about 600 children.

With the program working well, the Douglas County Commission on Dec. 2 provided additional funding to the program to help make sure all of the county’s $24.9 million CARES Act allocation was spent by the end of the year. But that additional funding is practically already spent, and the program is no longer taking any applications for housing support for the rest of the year, Ortiz said.

“With the number of applications we have in process, we had to take our application offline today because we have enough funding just for what we’ve already received applications for,” Ortiz said Tuesday. “I very much worry about us in January and beyond.”

Ortiz said the organizations were able to spend the funds so quickly because the HSC program existed before the pandemic. Family Promise began receiving grant funds for the program in 2019 and launched it in January 2020. So when the pandemic hit, Family Promise teamed up with Tenants to Homeowners for the program, which “didn’t have to invent anything new,” Ortiz said.

While that was helpful, the pandemic still hit hard. Ortiz said county residents began to lose income from the economic fallout associated with the pandemic, and the program was quickly swamped with people looking for help.

Additionally, the pandemic is not over, and the economic fallout from it may last even longer. Without another federal aid package similar to CARES for 2021, both Ortiz and Buford said they feared Douglas County could be facing a housing crisis next year.

“We’ve kept them through December paid up, but are all of them working and ready to pay market rent again on January 1?” Buford said of the program’s recipients. “It scares the bejesus out of me. … There’s still a huge need.”

If those 500 households lose out on support, those people could become homeless. The community does not have the resources to deal with hundreds of residents becoming homeless at once, adding to the many who are already without housing in the county, Buford said.

“We wouldn’t have any place to put people,” she said.

Currently, Kansas has an eviction and foreclosure moratorium in place, which is set to expire on Jan. 26, 2021, according to Gov. Laura Kelly’s Sept. 10 executive order. While the moratorium provides a temporary reprieve from eviction, that doesn’t mean rent won’t need to be paid, Buford noted. She said the dollars would still add up, and the back rent of homes that hadn’t received support would be due the moment the moratorium lifted.

Ortiz also noted that the rent support funds didn’t just help those who were paying the rent. She said they also helped the local economy because the landlords got paid.

“The households get to stay housed, and the landlords and property managers get to pay their mortgages,” Ortiz said, noting the program had built good relationships with many landlords and property managers in the county. “It’s a win-win on many perspectives.”

To avoid a housing crisis and a further economic drop from it, both Ortiz and Buford said they were hopeful for more federal funding, similar to the CARES Act. The program will also be looking to apply for other, smaller grants to help in the meantime.

Someday the pandemic will end, but Ortiz and Buford both plan to keep the rent support program going, likely at a smaller scale. Buford said Lawrence had an affordable housing issue before the pandemic, and that would still be the case afterward.

“We really do hope the community sees the benefit of this gap program that allows us to prevent homelessness, rather than address homelessness once it happens,” Buford said. “This should be a long-term community program, supported by the community, so we can prevent that trauma of displacement.”

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