Kansas Citizens Face Challenges In Paying Off Utility Debt, Putting Them At Risk Of Closures | KCUR 89.3
Louise Lynch and her daughter contracted COVID-19 last year – and they haven’t fully recovered.
Lynch’s 29-year-old daughter has been to the intensive care unit several times. And Lynch, who lives in Kansas City, Kansas, has eye inflammation that affects her eyesight and makes it difficult for her to find a job and lead a functional life.
Ultimately, Lynch fell months behind on her rent and utility bills. In March, she asked for help under the Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance program.
âIt’s not like I’m just sitting here waiting for something to fall from the sky and save me,â said Lynch, 59.
The federally-funded program is one of 470 put in place or expanded during the pandemic to help tenants like Lynch who are struggling to pay rent and utility bills.
But it could take weeks or months to get help, as the threat of the lights, gas and water turned off looms.
And the need is great. According to data from the Missouri website 211, of the 82,770 requests made to the 211 hotline in the Kansas City metro area since mid-July 2020, 34.9% were for assistance to utilities.
Without a moratorium, residents risk losing their lights
While a federal moratorium on evictions has been in place since last year, moratoria on utility shutdowns have been implemented locally by utility companies.
But some of these moratoriums have since expired or have lapsed.
âWhen people choose to survive, they have to decide, like me (for) many months, who can eat, who doesn’tâ¦ and who won’t get their meds this month,â Lynch said. âPutting our utilities in the middle of it all is absolutely ridiculous. “
Federal COVID-19 legislation has funded state and local programs to help residents pay rents and overdue utility bills.
The Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which Lynch applied for, received $ 200 million in federal funding.
Residents of Jackson County can still enroll in the county’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, and the state of Missouri is accepting applications through State Assistance for Housing Assistance. The programs received $ 11.5 million and $ 324 million in funding, respectively.
Kansas City, Missouri, however, recently stopped accepting new requests for its Emergency Rent and Utilities Assistance program because enough people requested to use the full 14.8 million dollars from the fund.
Lynch’s utilities are controlled by the Board of Public Utilities, a municipal utility company providing electricity and water services in Kansas City, Kansas.
The Board of Public Utilities has extended its moratorium on closures three times since the start of the pandemic. The council’s last one-month moratorium will expire on July 31.
David Mehlhaff, director of communications for the Board of Public Utilities, said he had extended the moratorium to give customers more time to process their requests for rent and utility assistance.
A cut in service means a loss of electricity and water.
âYou don’t have water to wash yourself or to use the facilities,â Lynch said. âYou don’t have water to hydrate you. You have nothing to support life.
The Board of Public Utilities offers several payment plan options to help customers pay their past bills and catch up on their current bills. Mehlhaff said it’s best for people to alert their utility company early if they can’t pay their bill.
âWe are going to work with the people,â he said. âWe will develop payment plans on a case-by-case basis. And we will try to connect them to these different utility assistance programs.
Evergy, the utility company providing electricity to households in the Kansas City metro area, ended its moratorium on closures on May 2. The company also offered customers a 12-month payment plan.
When the moratoriums on local utilities came to an end, programs offering assistance were inundated with applicants, said Beth Pauley, program coordinator with the Climate + Energy Project, a Kansas nonprofit focused on solutions to the environment. ‘clean energy.
“This certainly reflects that the moratorium on public services was lifted too early,” she said. “It was hastily lifted without a proper assessment of the options available to people and without speaking to people in the community.”
It took three weeks to speak with the agents and processors of the Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance Program for Lynch’s application to be submitted.
âDuring this time, I risked being disconnected from my public services,â she said. âI risked being evicted from my apartment. And I had a serious illness at home.
Lynch’s request was recently approved, with the funds paying off her overdue utility bills. But that doesn’t cover his July or August bills.
âI’m back in danger,â she said.
As summers get hotter, utility bills go up
In Overland Park, Kansas, tattoo artist Wesley Brockman, 50, fell behind on rent and utilities as the pandemic limited his work.
Last month, Brockman’s gas was cut for about three days until he recovered enough money to reignite it.
Last week, its electricity was cut, on a day when temperatures reached 90 degrees. This forced Brockman and his 3-year-old son to leave their home and hang out in a local park. Electricity had recovered when Brockman returned in the evening.
âAs a parent, I want to be able to provide a healthy and happy environment for my son,â he said. “When it was 90 degrees outside with no electricity, and then he asks me why the lights aren’t working, that gave me a lot of anxiety and I was pretty depressed about it.”
This is another reality. The impacts of climate change mean more extreme weather conditions in the Midwest: hotter, more unbearable summers and colder, harsher winters.
And, for utility customers, higher utility bills.
âThis is a problem that will continue to get worse,â Pauley said. âObviously this is exacerbated by extreme weather conditions, because the more extreme the temperatures, the more people use their electricity. And then it’s even more expensive in an inefficient housing stock.
Local groups fill in the gaps
Brockman also turned to Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance for help, but it was complicated. Sometimes the screenshots weren’t uploading properly or he didn’t have the correct documents. He was first told that his request had been denied.
When this happened, Brockman reached out to Lynch in Wyandotte County and Build Power MoKan, a coalition of energy justice-focused advocacy groups in the Kansas City metropolitan area, for help with his request for rental aid. And when his gas and electricity were cut off, Brockman said Lynch helped reignite them.
Brockman recently received a notice that the program would pay off some of its outstanding utility debt and rent.
âThere is a lot of pressure,â he said. âI’m just able to focus on keeping up, working and adapting to the ever-changing landscape of tattooing in a pandemic that has evolved. I can focus on that and not if the lights are on.
He is grateful that Build Power MoKan and Lynch stepped in to help.
âThe two divergent paths of my life, without their help and with their help, are quite extreme,â he said. âIt definitely gave me a chance to get back on my feet. “
Groups like WyCo Mutual Aid also fill in the gaps when emergency aid programs fail to disburse quickly enough.
The group helped Lynch cover some of her utility debt as she waited for help from Kansas.
Lynch has also done what she can to help others with rental and utility assistance, and more.
She assists the candidacy. She will contact the program supervisors on behalf of her neighbors. She even runs a community garden in her backyard for people who need food.
âI feel like I’m against the clock – I have to do whatever I can now, in case I go blind,â she said. âThese issues are fundamental to my existence. And seeing so many people disheveled, displaced, ignored, because they are poor, or because they are sick, is unacceptable.
This story originally appeared on The Beacon.