Clerks Stephanie Crump (right) and Ursela Hemman use one of four new kiosks for residents to access rent relief and other services from Wichita’s Housing & Community Services Department. (Matt Hennie/The Beacon)
Clerks Stephanie Crump (right) and Ursela Hemman use one of four new kiosks for residents to access rent relief and other services from Wichita’s Housing & Community Services Department. (Matt Hennie/The Beacon)

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Sheila Sager doesn’t know if she should pack her bags.

Her twins caught COVID. The electric company was threatening to shut off the lights. Her landlord was preparing to sell the house she rented, irritated with her pleas to get his cooperation on rental assistance paperwork. 

Sager was unemployed and behind on her bills — a nationwide commonality as the pandemic continues to bleed through every neighborhood. 

Desperate, she applied to the Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance program and the Wichita Emergency Rental Assistance Program for residents within city limits. 

The two programs dole out the state’s $200 million in federal funds designated for housing stability. U.S. Treasury data shows the state has spent about $169 million since the spring. 

KERA rejected Sager’s application, claiming she wasn’t a tenant paying rent. WERAP also denied her application, ruling that her Haysville address disqualified her. 

A while ago, Sager discovered her landlord wasn’t paying the mortgage. She sent her rent payments to the mortgage company. That arrangement led KERA to rule that she’s a homeowner and not eligible for the assistance program.  

“If I own the home, why isn’t my name on the mortgage?” Sager said. “I made a deal with (the landlord) out of fear of becoming homeless.”

Data depicts need for rental assistance

United Way of the Plains has received nearly 20,000 211 calls about rent or utility help this year. More than half of those calls came from Sedgwick County, according to the organization.

Nate Johnson, a staff attorney with Kansas Legal Services, said there has been a noticeable uptick in eviction-related cases this year.

Since Jan. 1, Kansas Legal Services has had over 1,200 requests statewide for legal assistance involving issues between landlords and tenants, according to data provided to The Wichita Beacon. 

Johnson said about 95% of those requests involve eviction in some way. 

“The number of requests has been increasing recently, with 454 requests since July 1,” he said. 

Since July 1, the nonprofit has received 149 requests for help in Sedgwick County alone, Johnson added. 

Sager provided emails to The Beacon showing months of back-and-forth, depicting a bureaucratic struggle to prove her need. 

“Hi I’m trying to get my landlord to cooperate and send the information you need to verify I don’t own this house and he thinks it’s all a scam,” Sager wrote in a July 21 email.

Sager’s appeal of KERA’s decision to deny her rental and utility assistance included attachments of texts between herself and the landlord — highlighting her effort to fulfill documentation requirements.

“Hi I’m just wondering if there’s been any update to my account?” Sager wrote in an Aug. 23 email. “… I am of course nervous and anxious and just need to know if I need to start packing out stuff or what I need to do. Thank you!”

On Aug. 26, the day a national eviction moratorium ended, KERA told Sager a decision hadn’t been made. 

By then, Sager’s gas and electricity were shut off.

A KERA official called Sager on Sept. 27 and said she would receive rental assistance from spring through October. But her appeal has not been formally approved.

Rental assistance programs a ‘little weird’

Sally Stang, the director of Wichita’s Housing and Community Services Department, said WERAP provides assistance directly to property owners and landlords on behalf of renters, but the verification process can be challenging. 

“People have had more interesting circumstances than I ever expected,” Stang said. 

Stang said WERAP has given out about 97% of its funds, with a sharp increase in distribution in August and September. Exact numbers are still being processed by federal officials.

Johnson said he found it a “little weird” that Wichita’s rental assistance program was created separately from KERA. 

“It seems like there’s a little bit of tension between the two (programs) on who does what, what the requirements are for either application, and who is in the right whenever there are discrepancies,” he said.

Rental assistance frustration inspired action

The day KERA came out in the spring, Louise Lynch frantically refreshed her browser to access the online application. Once the form popped up on her screen, she promptly filled it out and moved her cursor to click ‘submit.’

“Unbeknownst to me, there were a lot of technical issues with their site and still are,” she said. “I could not hit that submit button. The page wouldn’t move forward.”

Lynch said she called several community partners working with KERA to talk to supervisors about the technical issue. 

“They couldn’t understand,” she said. “I was given other numbers for other organizations paid to assist people, and they didn’t know either. I was so angry.”

Lynch was eventually able to submit the application, but the experience left her shaken.

“These programs make you feel … like you’re trying to rob the system,” she said. “If it was like that for me, I can’t imagine what it’s like for those less educated, less tech-savvy and in more dire situations.” 

Once utility companies suspended their moratoriums, Lynch decided to take action. She created an online form to collect information from people in need and simplify the case-building process. 

“I organize everything and see who is in imminent danger for a disconnection or an eviction,” she said. “I try to make it not as laborious as KERA, because in my opinion there’s no need for that.” 

Lynch was shocked when dozens of people asked for help, hoping for any last-ditch efforts to avoid evictions and shut-offs. 

“I get texts and emails 24/7. Day and night. The severity of need out there is maddening,” Lynch said. “I don’t turn my phone off anymore. Somebody needs help, and I need to hear it. There is a real person behind application No. 6527.”

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Lugli is a community watchdog reporter at The Wichita Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.