By CRISTINA JANNEY
Millions of Americans are reporting they are struggling to pay rent in the midst of the pandemic.
A local housing and resource agency in Hays says it has seen some increases in those applying for assistance, but local aid workers acknowledge the actual number of local renters struggling to pay rent and utilities is likely under-represented in the agency's numbers.
The Centers for Disease Control extended its nationwide eviction moratorium through March 31. Tenants must sign declarations and present them to their landlords stating they are unable to pay their rent as a result of the pandemic to qualify for the moratorium protection.
Nationwide Household Pulse data indicated almost one in five renters have not been caught up on their rent during the pandemic.
Ryan Vincent, Kansas Housing’s executive director, in an announcement on Jan. 6 of Tenant Based Rental Assistance grants expressed concerns about the effects of the pandemic on renters.
“A lack of quality, affordable housing across our state was a challenge even before COVID-19,” Vincent said. “With the current pandemic, this shortage has become a crisis. We’re pleased to offer this support to keep Kansans in their homes during this time of critical need.”
Harvest America, which serves Ellis County and much of western Kansas, received $400,000 from the TBRA program.
The funding, made possible through the state’s TBRA program and funded through federal HOME Investment Partnerships Program, helps income-eligible households afford rental subsidies, utility deposits and security deposits.
You can learn more about TBRA in Ellis County by Calling Heart of America at 785-746-4321. The aid application does take time to process.
Local relief agency First Call for Help has assisted a handful of local residents with rent and utility assistance specifically related to COVID-19, but Hays has not seen the housing crisis that more urban areas experienced in 2020.
"I don't know that we are really seeing the evictions yet," said Linda Mills, First Call for Help executive director. "The landlords are really trying their best to work with [renters]."
First Call for Help received $5,000 from the Schmidt Foundation and additional private donations earmarked for COVID relief last year.
First Call for Help has used funds specifically designated for COVID-19 relief to help some families get caught up on back rent or utilities. The agency was able to increase the amount of assistance to families by combining the COVID funds with its general assistance program.
Mills noted Hays did not have the unemployment rate that urban areas had before the shutdown and cost of living in Hays is lower than in other areas of the nation.
Unemployment rates in Northwest Kansas are returning to pre-COVID numbers, according to a report of December numbers released Jan. 25. Ellis County's jobless rate fell to 2.6 percent as of December from a high of 7 percent in April.
Mills said although many workers were able to return their jobs after the spring shutdown, some households have had to deal with loss of income due to quarantines.
First Call for Help assisted six people with rent in May and three people in June who were directly affected by COVID. Several more people were assisted with utilities during this time. That trended continued through the end of 2020.
That did not include people who were not affected by COVID who the agency helped through other housing assistance funds.
Mills said requests for COVID-related assistance have been trickling in. She said the agency received many calls in January, but numbers on those who received assistance have yet to be posted.
The number of those seeking assistance for none COVID reasons have trended higher, Mills said. Sixteen people were helped with rent assistance in October who were not directly affected by COVID, she said.
Mills said she believes more people are struggling with rent and utilities than are seeking help from First Call for Help.
Many don't know about the agency, don't know their rights or may only reach out for assistance when they have been given notice of eviction, she said.
"We talk to renters on an one-on-one basis as far as the legal issues or when they call here and say, 'I'm getting kicked out of here in two days,'" Mills said. "We say, 'Take a breath. There are some laws you need to know about and then determine if you are getting kicked out in two days.' "
Evictions are continuing in the county, but for non-COVID reasons, said Amanda Truan, Ellis County District Court administrator.
First Call for Help refers renters to Kansas Legal Services for legal questions on renting and evictions.
Landlords have to go through proper procedures. A landlord can't shut your utilities off or lock you out of the rental until all of the procedure have been followed, Mills said.
She said she First Call has dealt with renters whose landlords have tried these illegal tactics in the past. A landlord also may threaten such tactics, which can panic the renter, she said.
Although a few landlords may attempt to use unethical or illegal practices, most will follow the law and many in Hays are willing to work with renters, Mills said.
Mills urged renters who may think they will have difficulty paying their rent to contact their landlords well in advance of the rent being due.
"The landlords have been really good through all of this. I know they felt like they were limited in what they could do too, as far as not being able to evict people" she said.
To qualify for the moratorium, the renter must fill out a short form and give that to their landlord to sign before eviction proceedings begin. This does not mean the rent is no longer due. It must be paid in full at the end of the moratorium. Tenants also must to continue to follow all the stipulations of their leases.
"I think people are worried if they talk to the utility company or the rental agent about what they are dealing with then that will hurry the process along, and they don't want to do that" Mills said, "or they're just embarrassed. They don't want to call the rental agent and tell them they don't have the rent yet.
"The worst thing you can do is avoid contacting your landlord because most of our landlords are really good about working with tenants. If you don't call them, their only option is to start putting notices on your door."