Published October 5th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
As Kansas City, Missouri, continues distributing funds through its emergency rental assistance program, housing justice advocates in the metro area — worried about an increase in evictions and a surge in homelessness — are demanding that officials improve the program to better serve tenants.
Organizers with KC Tenants recently released a set of eight demands they say will strengthen the city’s Emergency Rental and Utilities Assistance Program and get money out faster to people in danger of losing their homes.
The city currently has $4.7 million available in federal COVID-19 relief funding for emergency rental and utilities assistance. Once that money is spent, the city will have an additional $7 million available to spend, for a total of $11.7 million in federal dollars for emergency rent and utility assistance.
“That’s gonna run out soon,” KC Tenants leader Mason Andrew Kilpatrick said. “So we know we have to apply pressure to get that stuff out now, but there is a long-term vision as well that we’re working towards.”
The demands include improving the emergency rental assistance application, preventing landlords from evicting a tenant who has applied for assistance and using rental assistance to pay off an eviction judgement.
After exhausting an earlier round of funding this year, Kansas City reopened its assistance program Sept. 1. In response to complaints that aid wasn’t getting out fast enough, the city announced the creation of its Emergency Rental Assistance Center. Residents who need help applying must make an appointment.
John Baccala, spokesperson for Kansas City’s Department of Housing and Community Development, said the center has helped 114 residents apply for assistance so far.
But leaders with KC Tenants believe more needs to be done.
“If the landlords will work with the tenants and they also work with rental assistance for the city, and we all come together and have solutions, it will provide security for the tenants and the landlord,” said Platte County resident and KC Tenants leader Leslie Vaughn.
Vaughn knows how crucial it is for the city to better support its tenants — she fell behind on rent during the pandemic when her tax refund was delayed.
She called local agencies looking for help, but many told her they didn’t have enough funding. She applied for emergency rental assistance earlier this year and only recently received a portion of the money she applied for.
As Vaughn waited for assistance, her landlord filed an eviction notice against her in July. By mid-August, Vaughn had lost her case.
“They still haven’t helped me pay off the rest of my eviction, because they don’t have enough funding,” Vaughn said.
The demands from KC Tenants come about a month after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal eviction moratorium, leaving thousands of Kansas City residents at greater risk of eviction and losing their homes. Recent data from the Eviction Lab, a research organization at Princeton University, shows more than 400 evictions have been filed in Kansas City, Missouri, since the moratorium ended.
Some of KC Tenants’ demands address the current eviction crisis. The group wants the city to use any unspent COVID-19 relief funding to pay off people’s eviction judgements. It also seeks to prohibit landlords from evicting a tenant or charging late fees within 60 days of the tenant applying for assistance. Such a policy could be implemented as a diversion program in Jackson County Court.
But Kilpatrick with KC Tenants said the group wants to do more than address eviction debts. “It’s also the evictions that are occurring,” they said. “What can we use to help people with evictions who are getting garnishments and getting money pulled out of their bank accounts? ”
Additional demands include: simplifying the city’s Emergency Rental and Utilities Assistance application to make it as uniform and automatic as possible; releasing weekly data reports showing the money spent and other demographic data; and coordinating with KC Tenants to conduct outreach about the program to local residents.
“Why are we not seeing collaborations with people in neighborhoods and cities to actually bring these resources to people at the door?” Kilpatrick said. “Going door by door (asking), ‘Are you in rental debt? Do you have utility debt? Let’s go do that paperwork right now and cancel that.’ Because we have the money and funding to do it.”
KC Tenants sent its demands to Kansas City Manager Brian Platt over the weekend. Baccala confirmed that Platt had received the demands and said Platt will schedule a meeting with the group to discuss them.
After struggling to access rental assistance, Vaughn now helps others through the process in her job at Community LINC, a Kansas City-based social service agency. She said the city’s application process is burdensome, requiring applicants to upload a number of documents to prove their eligibility.
“They need to streamline the … emergency assistance process for the local funding,” Vaughn said. “Because it’s ridiculous. It’s just too much.”
After she was evicted, Vaughn struggled to find a landlord willing to rent to her. When she was offered a two-bedroom apartment, she was so desperate she took the place sight unseen. But the second bedroom isn’t big enough for her two daughters, the youngest of whom is currently in college.
“When she comes home, I want … for us to be together again,” Vaughn said. “But I can’t find a landlord that’s willing to take me because my credit has suffered from COVID and because of the eviction.”
Recent data from the U.S. Treasury shows Kansas City has spent all of the $14.8 million it received for the first round of Emergency Rental and Utilities Assistance funding. That money assisted 3,706 households in Kansas City.
Nationwide, state and local emergency rental assistance programs have spent more than $7.7 billion this year as of the end of August. The Treasury Department recently released policy recommendations to help state and local programs allocate money faster.
These include allowing people to self-attest to some of the application’s eligibility requirements, like those proving financial hardship, income levels and the risk of homelessness. Currently, the Kansas City application requires applicants to submit proof that they meet the income and eligibility requirements, which can slow down the process if an applicant doesn’t have documents available.
The Treasury Department guidance allows for programs to partner with local nonprofits to provide advanced assistance to tenants who are at risk of eviction before their application is fully processed.
Similar to one of KC Tenants’ demands, Treasury guidance recommends that local programs be able to use rental assistance funding to pay off rent bonds — costs that can be associated with a tenant’s eviction case in court.
Several states and cities have accepted these recommendations. New Jersey, for instance, adopted the self-attestation policy and created a court diversion program to connect tenants facing eviction with rental assistance. Data shows New Jersey doubled the number of households that received assistance in August compared to July.
The emergency rental assistance program in Nashville also allows for self-attestation and provides direct payments to tenants who apply. As a result, the city assisted four times as many households in July and August as in May and June.
Some of KC Tenants’ demands look beyond the current emergency rental assistance program and urge the city to take more visionary steps on affordable housing, homelessness and preventing evictions.
The group’s proposals include barring landlords from discriminating against tenants who were evicted during the pandemic; legislating rent caps at the local level and approving the People’s Housing Trust Fund, a program to fund and provide affordable housing, which KC Tenants first proposed in July.
I want the city to fight for us, the citizens that live in the city.JOHN BROWN, KC TENANTS LEADER
Kilpatrick with KC Tenants said the People’s Housing Trust Fund, if adopted, would also help those experiencing homelessness in the metro area.
“Even if we could get the rental assistance going out, that’s still not going to change the fact that people have evictions, and people are homeless,” they said.
Vaughn is also worried about the increase in homelessness during the pandemic and believes public officials need to take action to keep people in their homes.
“They need to make changes now, and this needs to be a priority for politicians or congressmen or leaders in Kansas City, especially before winter,” she said.
Platte County resident John Brown wants Kansas City to take action on KC Tenants’ demands. Though he applied for emergency rental assistance in July, he hasn’t heard back or received any assistance.
Now, Brown has an eviction on his record. Unable to find stable housing, he’s been staying in hotels or on friend’s couches.
Of all KC Tenants’ demands, Brown said his priority is for the city to halt evictions as residents wait for assistance.
“I want the city to fight for us, the citizens that live in the city,” he said. “That’s what I expect. That’s what I demand.”
Celisa Calacal covers economics and civic engagement for The Beacon, an online news outlet based in Kansas City focused on local, in-depth journalism in the public interest.