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Kansas Agency Faces Pressure To Speed Aid, Prevent Evictions

Mark Moz
flickr Creative Commons

The state agency handling the bulk of emergency rental assistance in Kansas is falling behind on distributing funds.

TOPEKA — A state agency is pushing to process hundreds of applications for coronavirus relief funds from Kansas renters facing eviction and their landlords after spending weeks this spring hiring and training more than 100 new employees to do the work.

The state's Housing Resources Corporation is handling the bulk of the emergency rental assistance in Kansas, and most of its money hasn't yet been distributed. Questions about how quickly tenants' overdue rent and utility bills are being paid off became even more compelling late Thursday when the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a federal moratorium on evictions.

States, cities and counties have until 2025 to spend some of the dollars, but the federal government hoped for 65% of the first pool of aid — $15.7 billion total — to go out before Oct. 1. Although the state's largest city, Wichita, has hit that target with its own program, the Kansas housing agency, like such agencies in most states and most cities and counties with their own programs, was far short at the end of July, the U.S. Treasury Department reported this week.

“It's just not getting the money to people fast enough,” said Dustin Hare, an organizer for the tenant advocacy group Rent Zero Kansas.

The Kansas agency is now finishing about 500 applications per week, Executive Director Ryan Vincent said. The Treasury Department said the agency had distributed $21.9 million, or 11.7%, of its $188 million first pool of aid by the end of July. By Friday morning, that figure stood at $31.9 million, or 17%.

“Everything we can do to get those dollars out the door is what we're really focused on,” Vincent said.

Federal law directs the Treasury secretary to recapture “excess" funds and redirect them to states, cities and counties that hit the 65% goal.

“I am very concerned for the state that they're going to have a whole lot of money clawed back,” said Sally Stang, director of Wichita's housing department.

Vincent and Stockton Williams, the executive director of the National Council of State Housing Agencies, said such a redistribution is unlikely. They said the law simply allows the federal government to adjust when it has overestimated an area's demand for aid.

Vincent also said the federal government created an “administrative heavy” program requiring his agency to get new computer software and more than triple its normal staff of 40 to 50 people. Applications often involve multiple contacts with landlords and tenants, he said.

Vincent said the housing corporation anticipates the extra staff remaining into 2025, when the last of the relief funds must be spent. Agencies can use up to 10% of their funds to cover administrative costs.

The housing corporation had approved only one application by the end of April but has now provided aid to about 6,200 households. Another 3,900 applications are moving toward approval.

Vincent said he thinks his agency's processing speed now compares favorably to the pace in other states. According to the Treasury Department's data, Kansas was 13th among states for the percentage of funds spent in July.

Yet the agency faces pressure to move faster.

“It's been a nightmare for everybody I've talked to,” said Ed Jaskinia, a lobbyist for an association representing what he calls “mom and pop” Kansas landlords.

Stang isn't critical of the state program, but she thinks more funds should have flowed through local housing agencies like hers rather than limiting direct funding to several hundred of the nation's largest metropolitan areas.

Wichita's housing department as of Thursday had distributed nearly $8.7 million, or 72%, of its $12 million in first-round funding, and Stang said it should spend the rest by year's end. Some 1,450 households have received aid.

Stang said 70% of the landlords she's dealing with on emergency aid already were dealing with the city through housing vouchers commonly known as Section 8. She hired nine new temporary full-time workers, but she's also having 16 existing employees pitch in on applications part-time.

Stockton questioned whether small, local housing authorities could handle the demand for emergency aid. And Vincent said his agency is supplementing Wichita's program because the funds sent directly to the city aren't “its fair share.”

Meanwhile, Vincent and the Kansas housing corporation are encouraging tenants and their landlords to keep applying for aid.

“We've got the money,” he said. “It's not going to run out.”