New housing aid program using $850,000 in CARES Act funds to help dozens of families; nonprofits say need for assistance has risen ‘astronomically’
photo by: Ashley Golledge
When Lawrence schools went to online learning in March because of the coronavirus, it meant the end of Lawrence resident Erin Chappell’s substitute teaching job. Chappell was left searching for work when most businesses were closed because of health orders, and the back rent started piling up.
“That put an end to my job at the time, and future jobs as well,” Chappell said. “So I found myself unemployed, and I was looking heavily for jobs and just having a really hard time finding one.”
Chappell, 51, said she looked everywhere for a job, but many of the businesses that remained open under the health orders were cutting back on staff, not hiring. She said that as a substitute teacher, she was deemed a seasonal worker and was therefore ineligible for unemployment benefits. Her rent payments were both late and partial, and eventually, as the pandemic stretched on, she was three months behind on rent.
“I was worried I was going to be evicted and homeless,” Chappell said. “I was scared to death.”
What intervened was a new program, the Housing Stabilization Collaborative, that provides rent assistance and case management to people who have lost income because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Family Promise of Lawrence and Tenants to Homeowners administer the program, which brings together various partnering social service agencies to collaboratively manage supportive services with tenants, according to the program website. Those helping to run the new program say Chappell is far from alone and the need for such rental support is not likely to abate anytime soon.
Family Promise, which serves families experiencing or in danger of homelessness, is now serving more than four times as many people each week, on average, as it was in February before the pandemic took hold, according to Executive Director Dana Ortiz. Currently, Ortiz said the Family Promise organization as a whole is serving more than 70 families, comprising 266 people. As of Thursday, 57 of those families were part of the new program and an additional six families were participating in the program through other agencies in the collaborative.
“The need has just astronomically increased,” Ortiz said.
Family Promise began the program in February, supported in part by a Help Us Move In (HUMI) grant, as a homelessness prevention program for families. But after the coronavirus began impacting Lawrence in March, Ortiz said the calls for assistance started increasing, and Family Promise partnered with Tenants to Homeowners so the program could expand and also serve single adults. The program was recently able to increase its capacity by several times after receiving an $850,000 grant from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES. Those funds must be spent by the end of the year, but program leaders say they expect the need to continue beyond Jan. 1.
Tenants to Homeowners provides affordable housing and does not normally address housing insecurity or other crises. But since the organization became part of the new program, TTH Executive Director Rebecca Buford said TTH has received a great number of calls from people seeking help. Buford said the callers are stressed and worried because they have lost income and don’t know what to do to stay housed. She said that includes young workers with no or minimal savings who have never had to use social support services before.
“The need is there, and I think some of it is almost understated because a lot of people have never been in this situation and it’s kind of hard to ask for help,” Buford said. She added that even as health orders have relaxed and more businesses have opened back up, workers who have been able to find new jobs or increase their hours are still in the hole with back rent and bills.
According to Ortiz and Buford, those seeking help have included people in the restaurant or service industry who have lost hours due to the pandemic, people who don’t qualify for unemployment, and people who have had to scale back their hours to help their kids with online school. Others quit their jobs early in the pandemic because of health conditions that put them at high risk should they get COVID-19.
The program has two rental assistance options that will provide each household up to $4,000 in aid, based on need, as long as the residents have lost income because of COVID-19 and also did not make over 80% of the area median income before that income loss. If the household income is now below 30% of the area median income because of COVID-19, the individual or family qualifies for rental assistance that they do not need to pay back. Households now making between 30% and 50% of the area median income because of COVID-19 are eligible for a microloan. Buford said the microloan has a 1% interest rate, is not amortized and is meant to give people an alternative to payday loans. The loan payments will go back into the program.
Aid recipients must also participate in case management. TTH and Family Promise provide referrals to social support services and are working with another area nonprofit, Housing & Credit Counseling, to provide additional budget counseling for tenants in the program, according to the program website. Ortiz says case management is key because the end goal of the program is stabilization. Both Ortiz and Buford also noted that keeping someone in their home costs significantly less than getting them back into housing once they become homeless.
The program gathered about $75,000 in grants and other funding before receiving the CARES funding. Ortiz said the program has already provided support to 96 local families, and the $850,000 CARES grant will help support at least 200 households.
The program is also working with the Chamber of Commerce to communicate with landlords, who can refer their tenants to the program. To receive payments from the program, landlords must work with their tenants and agree to forgive late fees, according to the program website. A recent federal order prohibits evictions through the end of 2020 for people below certain incomes who have lost work during the pandemic if eviction would cause them to become homeless or live in close quarters with others. Buford said that apart from the tenants, the landlords also get needed support from the program, especially small mom-and-pop landlords.
“This is a really great example of where we can use (the) subsidy to serve several segments of the population and keep our economy sustainable,” Buford said.
For Chappell, who has been participating in the program for the past two months, it has been invaluable. Chappell said the management company of her apartment complex, Tuckaway Apartments, worked with her and she was able to pay her back rent using funds from the Housing Stabilization Collaborative. The program will continue to pay her rent through October, and then Chappell — who is starting a new job at Maximus call center on Monday — will be taking over her rent payments again in November.
“This program was a lifesaver for me; there is no other way to put it,” Chappell said. “It helped me when I was at one of my lowest times.”
Those interested in the Housing Stabilization Collaborative program can find more information on the TTH website, tenants-to-homeowners.org. Ortiz and Buford both said they anticipate the need for the program to continue in 2021, and Ortiz said Family Promise is planning its fundraising efforts and program staffing based on the current service needs.