COVINGTON, Ky. — Before the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis, St. Vincent de Paul of Northern Kentucky sometimes received 30 to 40 calls a day from people requesting help to cover their rent, utilities and other basic needs.
Now the nonprofit has days where it gets as many as 60 to 70 calls for assistance, said executive director Karen Zengel. The amount that families need to get caught up is much greater, too, Zengel said, especially when it comes to rental assistance.
“Prior to the pandemic, to just provide some context, St. Vincent de Paul on average would provide $200 or $300 to help people just meet that gap that they might be facing,” she said. “When the pandemic hit, and we were seeing the significant levels of unemployment and a lot of families really struggling to make ends meet, the amount that was being requested to be able to pay their rent or pay their utilities became much more significant. It is not unheard of now for us to get requests for assistance for $1,000, $1,500.”
Just since October 2020, St. Vincent de Paul of Northern Kentucky has provided $215,000 in rental assistance to families in need, Zengel said, helping more than 1,000 households.
“That is normally what we do in a year,” she said. “And that’s just since October.”
That’s why Zengel was thrilled when Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear announced that the state’s Healthy at Home Eviction Relief Fund application system reopened on Feb. 15.
The state received $297 million in federal coronavirus relief money to help renters who have been hurt financially by COVID-19. Renters who qualify can get as much as 100% of their past-due rent since April 1, 2020, and up to three months of future rent. The fund also has money for utility relief and can cover a maximum of all past-due utilities since April 1, 2020, and three months of future utilities.
The program makes direct payments to landlords and utility providers.
It has been a big help to renters -- and landlords, said Kim Berling, the regional property manager for CB Management Services.
“A lot of times people don’t understand that we still have mortgages, taxes, insurance and operating costs,” Berling said. “At the end of the day, the ‘big landlords’ really are not rich people that are just out spending money. They are real people trying to make a living. And when rents don’t come in, bills can’t get paid.”
A ‘first-time event’ for many
CB Management has about 550 apartments and single-family homes in its portfolio, Berling said, with properties from Batavia, Ohio, to Burlington, Ky.
“We’ve had to really totally rethink how we do things,” she said. “We try to keep everybody in place if we can. If we can, if we can make that happen, that’s our biggest goal.”
That has meant accepting partial rent payments every week or every two weeks in some cases, she said. And when renters run into trouble, Berling said, she refers them to St. Vincent de Paul of Northern Kentucky and the Healthy at Home Eviction Relief Fund for help.
The federal funding that Kentucky now has available has made a big difference, she said.
“We had a couple people that were facing homelessness where the fund was able to kick in and pay,” Berling said. “As a landlord we’re fortunate enough that we can wait for all that paperwork to go through, because it does take a little time.”
It’s especially helpful for tenants and landlords that the fund can help people pay their rent a few months in advance, she said, in addition to paying for rent that is past due.
“That just gets that person that much further ahead,” Berling said. “A lot of times what we encourage is, if you start back working, pay an extra month ahead. That way you don’t get behind.”
Some tenants have gotten as much as $4,200 from the fund to cover their housing expenses, she said.
The goal is to make sure nobody gets “left behind” as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis, said Dennis Coyne. Coyne is a Vincentian – a volunteer for St. Vincent de Paul – who has been focused on helping people in parts of Northern Kentucky where the nonprofit didn’t have a large volunteer presence before the pandemic.
“We’re seeing people that we have never seen before, people with great anxiety, people who have always met their financial obligations, to pay rent and to pay the utilities,” he said. “This was a first-time event for many people.”
‘We can start fresh’
Being able to refer people to Kentucky’s Healthy at Home Eviction Relief Fund makes it possible to help more people with much bigger needs, Coyne said.
“For people who have been substantially behind, whether it’s utilities or rent, this is a great opportunity,” he said. “We’re spending a lot of time trying to educate people.”
There are forms that must be filled out online, which can be tricky for people who don’t have internet access at their homes.
But Berling said it’s doable. She said she had one tenant who was able to fill out the forms using his cellphone and the rental office Wi-Fi.
“Most people, when they feel like they’re going to hit the wall, will reach out,” she said.
The key, Berling said, is for tenants to communicate with their landlords so the landlords know tenants are doing their best to meet their financial obligations during a difficult time.
“If you communicate, and we know what’s going on, and we know that you’re working hard,” she said, “we’re going to do our very best to keep you in your unit.”
Zengel said St. Vincent de Paul is working hard to let people know the state’s fund has plenty of money available to help.
“If a person is able to take advantage of the Healthy at Home Eviction Relief Fund, both from a renter and landlord perspective, it can be a win-win situation and get everyone caught up,” Zengel said. “We can start fresh again.”
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for Lucy and for WCPO 9. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.