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Kansas Citians Face Challenges Paying Off Utility Debt, Putting Them At Risk Of Shutoffs

Louise Lynch and her service dog, Paco, at her garden in Kansas City, Kansas.
Zachary Linhares
The Beacon
Louise Lynch and her service dog, Paco, at her garden in Kansas City, Kansas. Lynch is experiencing the long-term effects of COVID-19 and has faced the threat of a utility shutoff multiple times during the pandemic.

A hot summer also means higher utility bills for residents who are already struggling to stay afloat.

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 multiple times. And Lynch, who lives in Kansas City, Kansas, has inflammation in her eyes that’s impacting her sight and making it hard for her to find a job and live a functioning life.

Eventually, Lynch fell months behind on her rent and utility bills. In March, she applied for help through the Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance program.

“It’s not like I was just sitting here waiting for something to drop from the sky and save me,” Lynch, 59, said.

The federally funded program is one of 470 established 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, while the threat of having lights, gas and water turned off looms.

And the need is high. According to data from Missouri’s 211 website, out of the 82,770 requests made to the 211 hotline in the Kansas City metro area since mid-July 2020, 34.9% were for utility assistance.

With no moratorium, residents at risk of losing their lights

While a federal eviction moratorium has been in place since last year, moratoriums on utility shutoffs were implemented at the local level by utility companies.

But some of those moratoriums have since expired or lapsed.

“When people are choosing to survive, they have to decide, like myself (for) many months, who gets to eat, who doesn’t … and who’s not going to get their medicines this month,” Lynch said. “To put our utilities in the middle of it is absolutely ridiculous.”

Federal COVID-19 legislation funded state and local programs to help residents pay overdue rent and utility bills.

The Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance program, which Lynch applied to, received $200 million in federal funding.

Jackson County residents can still apply to the county’s Emergency Rental Assistance program, and the state of Missouri is accepting applications through the State Assistance for Housing Relief. The programs received $11.5 million and $324 million in funding, respectively.

Kansas City, Missouri, however, recently stopped accepting new applications to its Emergency Rent and Utility Assistance Program because enough people applied to use the fund’s entire $14.8 million.

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 shutoffs three times since the pandemic began. The board’s latest monthlong moratorium will expire July 31.

David Mehlhaff, chief communications officer for the Board of Public Utilities, said it extended the moratorium to allow customers more time to have their rent and utility assistance applications processed.

A utility shutoff means losing both electricity and water.

“You have no water to wash yourself, or to use the facilities,” Lynch said. “You have no water to hydrate yourself. You have nothing to sustain life.”

Louise Lynch and her husband, Steve Lynch, clean up their garden at their house in Kansas City, Kansas.
Zachary Linhares
The Beacon
Louise Lynch and her husband, Steve Lynch, clean up their garden at their house in Kansas City, Kansas.

The Board of Public Utilities offers several payment plan options to help customers pay off past bills and catch up on current bills. Mehlhaff said it’s best if people alert their utility company early if they can’t pay their bill.

“We’ll work with people,” he said. “We’ll work out payment plans on a case-by-case basis. And we’ll try and get them connected with these different utility assistance programs.”

Evergy, the utility company providing electricity for households in the Kansas City metro area, ended its moratorium on shutoffs May 2. The company also offered customers a 12-month payment plan.

When the local utility moratoriums ended, programs offering assistance were overwhelmed with applicants, said Beth Pauley, program coordinator with the Climate + Energy Project, a Kansas nonprofit focused on clean energy solutions.

“It definitely reflects that the utility moratorium was lifted too soon,” she said. “It was lifted hastily without a proper evaluation of what options people have and talking to folks in the community.”

It took three weeks of speaking with agents and processors with the Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance program for Lynch’s application to be submitted.

“Meanwhile, I was in jeopardy of being disconnected from my utilities,” she said. “I was in jeopardy of being evicted from my apartment. And I had a severe illness in my home.”

Lynch’s application was recently approved, with the funds paying off her past-due utility bills. But it doesn’t cover her bills for July or August.

“I’m back in jeopardy,” she said.

As summers get hotter, utility bills get higher

In Overland Park, Kansas, tattoo artist Wesley Brockman, 50, fell behind on his rent and utilities as the pandemic limited his work.

Last month, Brockman’s gas was shut off for about three days until he scraped enough money to get it turned back on.

Last week, his electricity was shut off, on a day when temperatures reached 90 degrees. It forced Brockman and his 3-year-old son to leave their home and hang out at a local park. The electricity had turned back on when Brockman returned in the evening.

“As a parent, I want to be able to provide a healthy, happy environment for my son,” he said. “When it was 90 degrees outside with no electricity, and then he’s asking me why the lights don’t work, it 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 in the Midwest: hotter, more unbearable summers and colder, harsher winters.

And, for utility customers, higher utility bills.

“It’s an issue that is going to continue to get worse,” Pauley said. “Obviously, it’s exacerbated by extreme weather because the more extreme the temperatures, the more folks are using their electricity. And then that is even more expensive in inefficient housing stock.”

Local groups filling the gaps

Brockman also applied for help from Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance, but it was messy. Sometimes screenshots wouldn’t upload correctly, or he didn’t have the right documents. He was initially told his application was denied.

When that happened, Brockman connected with Lynch in Wyandotte County and Build Power MoKan, a coalition of advocacy groups focused on energy justice in the Kansas City metro area, to get help with his rental assistance application. And when his gas and electricity were shut off, Brockman said Lynch helped get them turned back on.

Brockman recently received notice that the program would pay part of his utility debt and past-due rent.

“There’s a lot of pressure off,” he said. “I’m just able to focus on staying caught up and work and adapting to the ever-changing landscape of tattooing in a pandemic that’s evolved. I can focus on that and not whether the lights are on.”

He’s thankful that Build Power MoKan and Lynch stepped in to help.

“The two divergent paths of where my life would be like, without their help, and with their help, are pretty extreme,” he said. “It definitely gave me a chance to get back on my feet.”

Groups like WyCo Mutual Aid are also filling the gaps when emergency assistance programs fail to get out money fast enough.

The group helped Lynch cover some of her utility debt when she was waiting on assistance from Kansas.

Lynch has also been doing what she can to help others with rental and utility assistance, and more.

She assists with the application. She’ll contact program supervisors on behalf of her neighbors. She even tends to a community garden in her backyard for people who need food.

“I feel like I’m against the clock — I have to do whatever I can now, in the event I do go blind,” she said. “These issues are paramount to my existence. And to see so many people disheveled, displaced, disregarded, because they’re poor, or because they’re ill, is unacceptable.”

This story was originally published on The Beacon.

As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives. I break down political jargon so people can easily understand policies and how it affects them. My work is people-forward and centered on civic engagement and democracy. I hold political leaders and public officials accountable for the decisions they make and their impact on our communities. Follow me on Twitter @celisa_mia or email me at celisa@kcur.org.
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