Jodie Thomas was earning $62,000 a year until she was let go from her job in December.
It took months for her unemployment to come through. She burned through her 401K, relied on the generosity of friends and her church, but by the time she began collecting unemployment in late February, the debts had piled up.
She’s had trouble paying rent at her home in Simpsonville and now, August rent is due.
Thomas didn’t know what to do, so she called the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky asking for help.
“It’s a nightmare,” Thomas said. “I’ve had hard times in my life. I’ve worked for everything I have just for it all to be gone… It doesn’t seem fair.”
Thomas is just one of 42% of renting households in Kentucky who may not be able to pay rent and are at risk of eviction before the end of the year, according to the national research firm Stout.
On Saturday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing federal agencies to consider extending an eviction moratorium for federally backed and federally subsidized housing. The executive order directed federal agencies to make some temporary financial assistance available to renters and homeowners, but the amount and other details are not known. The order stops landlords from filing eviction actions or charging late fees. It does not specify how long the moratorium will last.
Kentucky also has its own moratorium on evictions. Gov. Andy Beshear said he believes his statewide emergency order prevents authorities from enforcing evictions once the court has approved them, but that remains imperiled. A Kentucky Supreme Court case could overturn all of Beshear’s emergency orders, including eviction protections.
Either way the moratoriums on their own are not enough to prevent a wave of evictions, said Adrienne Bush, executive director at the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky. Rent is still accruing along with possible late charges and at the end of the moratorium people are still going to potentially owe thousands of dollars.
“When they haven’t been working because of stay-at-home orders or because of the hit to the economy, that’s not sustainable,” Bush said. “It’s not sustainable for the renters, it’s not sustainable for the landlords. In order for an eviction moratorium to be effective, you actually need rent relief.”
The pandemic has crippled America’s economy. Ordinary Kentuckians who’ve never had problems paying rent are facing the prospect of eviction. Housing advocates say while Kentuckians need help paying their rent, the available relief is “fragmented” county to county, organization to organization.
Thomas rents in Shelby County. If she lived in Louisville, she could apply for up to three months’ of rent relief through federal CARES Act funding provided to the city. But that funding is only available for Jefferson County residents.
Thomas will eventually be able apply for rent relief through the Kentucky Housing Corporation, but as of Friday morning, that agency had not yet received its portion of the CARES Act funding through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development— even though the agency finished the application process in June.
And even then, Thomas’ odds of receiving that funding are uncertain. The Kentucky Housing Corporation plans to put aside enough funds to help an estimated 2,200 households across the state, according to the agency. But the problem is significantly larger. Smith estimates 130,000 households — which represent far more than 130,000 people — are at risk of being late on rent and at-risk of homelessness before the end of the year.
“What’s going on with rental relief in Kentucky is kind of a fragmented story, it’s sort of locality by locality and organization by organization,” said Kentucky Housing Corporation Deputy Executive Director Wendy Smith.
Thomas and other renters facing evictions across the rest of the state may be able to receive help through local community action agencies. These organizations offer a variety of support for low-income families who need help paying bills, putting food on the table and affording transportation. They may also be able to offer some limited, short-term rent relief, she said.
The Team Kentucky Fund is a third option for renters impacted by the pandemic.
That funding is limited to a voucher of up to $1,000 and renters have to prove their household’s income was below 400% of the official poverty income guidelines prior to March 6, 2020, or is at or below 200% the official poverty income guidelines at the time of applying.
Those looking for aid also have to prove an adverse financial impact from the virus, which the fund defines as the loss of employment or a reduction of more than 50% of income on or after March 6, 2020.
Thomas from Shelby County applied for the Team Kentucky Fund the first day it was available, but wasn’t eligible.
“They said you can start applying at 8:00. At 7:59, I applied. I was checking, checking, checking online to see what it said,” Thomas said. “I didn’t qualify because I was getting unemployment before March 5.”
Assistance In Louisville
In Louisville, Mayor Greg Fischer is urging renters to seek assistance through the city’s Office of Resilience and Community Services. The city has received $21.2 million through the Federal CARES Act to help tenants cover their rent.
To be eligible, renters have to earn at or below 80% of the area median income, which is $61,100 annually for a family of four. They also need a pending court eviction or a past due notice from a landlord.
Nearly 2,500 renters have already reached out to the city program as of August 5, according to data provided by the Louisville Metro Office of Resilience and Community Services.
Cassandra Miller helps to oversee the program as the resilience and community services manager over Neighborhood Place. In fact, she’s helped people find the services they need for more than two decades, including the Great Recession. But she says this time is different.
“It’s one of those things where it just feels like everyone is in crisis at the same time,” Miller said. “If this funding was not available and if eviction prevention was not a priority for this city it would be a disaster.”
What Happens Next
Miller said the millions of dollars Louisville received through the CARES Act is a good start. Without it, she said more people will lose their homes, more children will end up on the streets and crime rates will increase. She’s one of four housing advocates that WFPL News spoke with who all described similar outcomes.
First, families spend their savings trying to keep their home. When that fails, they either couch surf with family and friends — its own problem given the pandemic — they live out of their vehicles or spend what they have left paying week-to-week for motel rooms.
Homeless shelters are ordinarily the last resort for families, said Smith with the Kentucky Housing Corporation. She doesn’t think the state’s shelters are equipped to handle an influx of families.
“The existing network of buildings and staff and systems is going to have a hard time sheltering and rehousing a tsunami of folks that lose their homes,” Smith said.
The best way to prevent that from happening is for families to keep paying their rent, she said. And right now, the best way to ensure families can pay is for Congress to pass additional unemployment benefits.
On Saturday, Trump issued three memoranda extending $400 weekly payments to unemployed Americans ー $200 less than the benefits that expired at the end of July — and temporarily delaying payroll taxes. At least 25% of the payment will have to come from state coffers while the federal government will contribute the rest, according to the White House.
It’s likely the Trump administration will face legal challenges over the extension as Congress ordinarily controls federal spending. Those challenges could delay payments.
In the meantime, Smith recommends renters communicate with their landlords and contact community action agencies and local housing authorities to apply for Section 8 housing. A new website, stopmyeviction.org, is also helping to connect Jefferson County residents with local resources.
Thomas, from Shelby County, receives her last unemployment payment this week. Like many others, 2020 has been one of the most challenging years of her life. In the wake of losing her job, she’s suffered from fits of anxiety and depression.
“I’m talking days at time, I didn’t know what day it was,” Thomas said. “And that’s not me. I’ve had hard times in my life. I’m not a quitter, I’m a fighter.”
Thomas is grateful for all of the assistance she’s received, but said she could really use some more help.
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the title of Wendy Smith. She is the deputy executive director of the Kentucky Housing Corporation.