Published July 20th, 2021 at 7:05 AM
Rubby Herrera, 27, had never been late on her rent or utilities. But in April, Herrera lost her service job and was late on rent.
She immediately applied for Kansas City, Missouri’s Emergency Rental and Utilities Assistance Program and worked two jobs to catch up. But she missed rent again in May and submitted another application for rental assistance.
At the end of May, Herrera received an eviction notice.
“It’s not like I don’t want to be paying rent,” Herrera said. “I just so happened to have a backtrack that kind of put me in a really bad spot.”
She feels overwhelmed and stressed. She’s lost both her jobs. She has her cat to care for. And she still hasn’t received any assistance from the city.
With $14.8 million in federal funding, Kansas City opened its Emergency Rental Assistance Program in March to aid tenants who needed help paying their rent and utility bills during the pandemic. But tenants like Herrera who applied for assistance have not all received the help they thought they would get.
Now, four months since launching, the program is no longer accepting new applications. The city has already received enough applications to use up all of its $14.8 million funding pool.
According to data provided by the city, 1,122 households have been helped so far. Nearly $4.8 million in funding had been spent as of late June. Over 7,000 total applications have been received as of early July, according to information provided by Community Assistance Council, a nonprofit partnering with the city on distributing rental assistance funding.
Kansas City’s Emergency Rental and Utility Assistance Program is one of 458 programs nationwide created through federal legislation in response to the pandemic.
Tenants who qualify for assistance in Kansas City can receive up to 12 months of assistance, including past-due rent or utility bills since April 1, 2020, and three months of future rent payments. Funds are sent directly to a tenant’s landlord or utility company.
Kansas City was approved for a second round of funding for emergency rental assistance. The application portal states that it will reopen Sept. 1.
Jennifer Tidwell, division manager of Housing and Community Development in Kansas City, Missouri, said the city is directing people to apply for Missouri’s State Assistance for Housing Relief program instead. The state program received $323.7 billion in federal funding to distribute for rent and utility assistance.
“There’s not going to be a break in anybody’s ability to get funding because they can go straight to the state,” Tidwell said. “They can continue to apply and the state has a whole lot more money than we have.”
Tidwell said the city recently hired new staffers who can provide updates on people’s applications.
“We’re upgrading the things that we’re doing to make it more efficient for the residents to be able to get funding,” she said.
Pandemic federal funds for rent and utility assistance meant social service organizations like Reconciliation Services could offer more help, said Jodi Mathews, director of marketing and development. Initially, Reconciliation Services received $250,000 in rental assistance funds from the city. That money was spent in seven weeks, she said.
The organization asked the city for more funds to distribute — the team has the capacity to process more applications with dedicated case managers, and staff can process applications within two weeks.
So far, Mathews said the organization has distributed about $650,000 in rental and utility assistance to 75 clients.
“We have prevented 62 evictions,” she said. “We have worked to get 10 clients newly housed.”
Though the city is not taking new applications, there is still money to be spent. Applications submitted through the online portal are funneled to local nonprofits for processing.
But that has come with challenges.
The Community Assistance Council, a social service agency serving south Kansas City, was awarded $550,000 from the city — $50,000 to hire a staffer to work on applications and the rest for rent and utility assistance.
So far, Community Assistance Council has spent $147,899 in assistance for 100 households, according to executive director Rachel Casey.
As of July 7, there were 1,592 applications located in Community Assistance Council’s service area that haven’t yet been sent to the agency. The organization is not currently taking more applications because it couldn’t handle the volume of applications, Casey said.
The need is high, she said. But there isn’t enough money to go around.
“You hear these numbers, and they sound huge,” Casey said. “But people have been off work for months and months and months.”
ReStart, a social services agency in Kansas City that serves unhoused people, received $500,000 from the city for rental assistance. By the end of July, the organization will have exhausted those funds, said CEO Stephanie Boyer.
Boyer said there’s still people who applied in the application portal who haven’t been reached yet.
“When the portal opened up, there was just such a huge inflow of people applying all at one time,” she said. “We’re playing catch up on the infrastructure side.”
The longer it takes applications to be approved, the harder it is for tenants to catch up.
When Herrera applied for rental assistance, she received an email stating it would take four to six weeks for a caseworker to reach out.
But with Herrera’s work schedule, it’s been difficult to connect.
The time it takes to process an application can also depend on the capacity of the nonprofit.
I’m gonna lose it all.SARA JONES, LEES SUMMIT RESIDENT
At the Community Assistance Council, Casey said it takes an average of 30 days to process an application and send out the money.
Once rental assistance was announced, calls jumped to 100 a day, Casey said. There are three part-time staffers working on processing calls and applications.
The main holdup? Getting a response from an applicant’s landlord. Once a tenant applies, a landlord has to provide documents showing how much is owed.
Boyer at reStart said it can be a cumbersome process involving constant back and forth among case managers, landlords and tenants. She said there are some applicants who applied in April who only recently got assigned to an agency.
“They’ve been under quite a bit of stress not knowing what was going to happen, and if they were going to be experiencing homelessness,” Boyer said.
Stacey Johnson-Cosby is a landlord in Kansas City and the executive director of the Kansas City Regional Housing Alliance, a group representing landlords and housing providers in the metro.
Johnson-Cosby said landlords need the assistance, too, to pay their bills and take care of the property. But the application process is a challenge, she said.
“The documentation, the application process, is a nightmare. And it’s hard to get it right the first time,” she said. “If you don’t have technology or a computer, you can’t really apply.”
Mathews with Reconciliation Services said it will be important to have open communication between the city and organizations as the rest of the funding is distributed.
“If we’re not communicating about what’s available, we’re not going to be able to help people,” Mathews said. “The worst thing would be to have organizations sitting on this funding, or not have the resources in staff and time to be able to get it where it’s going to do the most good.”
In April, Sara Jones in Lees Summit received an eviction notice. She owed $6,000 in back rent and court fees and more in late utility bills. The federal eviction moratorium means Jones can stay in her apartment until the end of July.
Jones applied for assistance through Jackson County in June, which covered her back rent and utility debt.
She asked for three months of future rent assistance. But the money hasn’t been approved because there has to be a landlord willing to rent to her. That’s difficult with an eviction on her record.
Come August, Jones doesn’t know where she’ll go.
“Now I’m gonna lose it all,” she said.
In June, a judgement was entered against Herrera in Kansas City. She now has an eviction on her record.
She’s hoping the rental assistance will come through. But she’s also expecting the worst.
“If I don’t have a place by the time that I’m told to leave, I will be homeless on the streets with my cat,” she said. “Now that I have an eviction on my name, it’s going to be so much harder to get a place.”
Celisa Calacal covers economics and civic engagement issues for The Beacon, an online news outlet based in Kansas City focused on local, in-depth journalism in the public interest.