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Missouri's housing advocates call for statewide protections

by Phillip Sitter | April 2, 2020 at 5:05 a.m. | Updated April 2, 2020 at 1:03 p.m.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic drives record unemployment and has forced child care and other additional expenses onto families, Missouri housing advocates called Wednesday for Gov. Mike Parson to take statewide actions to protect tenants, landlords and the homeless as people become unable to pay rent.

Parson has been hesitant to enact statewide policies such as a temporary suspension of evictions.

"I think we talk about those things daily, how we might approach something like that, if that need comes about," he said Monday. "But I think you've got to be careful just reacting to what people might think or what people say. You have to evaluate each situation and what is the effect of that, and what is happening in that category - are people getting evicted now because of COVID-19?"

Two days later, first-of-the month rents were due, and advocates said Wednesday the need for help is urgent.

A conference call including Kansas City-based affordable housing community organizing group KC Tenants, St. Louis-based legal advocacy organization Arch City Defenders and Missouri House Minority Floor Leader Rep. Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, also featured tenants and a landlord who said they are doing everything right but worry about making ends meet.

"We are not going to evict anybody or put anybody out," said Misty McIntosh, a real estate agent and landlord from Springfield who said she and her husband have been in the business for about 10 years and have tenants who are out of work and cannot pay rent.

However, McIntosh said, that does not stop worries about her family being able to pay the mortgages on their properties, and not every landlord will act as they are.

She hoped for incremental payback plans for deferred rent and mortgage payments, in the event of a temporary suspension on collections.

Jenay Manley, a tenant in Kansas City, cautioned tenants also would need the same sorts of protections - not to have to later face months of deferred payments all at once and have landlords profit at the expense of tenants' well-being.

A statewide suspension of collection of rent and mortgages was one of the four main demands housing organizers made Wednesday, in addition to having an immediate moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, banning utility shut-offs and restoring services to all households, and expanding housing and other services for people experiencing homelessness.

Parson's office did not give a response by press time Wednesday as to whether the governor had specific concerns about measures such as statewide suspensions of evictions or of the collection of rent and mortgage payments.

"I don't think anyone really has an understanding of the totality of it," Lee Camp, an attorney with Arch City Defenders, said of the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic's economic disruptions. It's difficult to have a sense of what happens on a day-to-day basis, he added.

Tara Raghuveer, an organizer with KC Tenants, said one way to gauge the scope of the issue would be to triangulate between the number of people who were already rent-burdened before the pandemic and the number of people who have filed for unemployment during the pandemic.

"Approximately 30 percent of all Missouri households fall into the category of housing-cost burdened, spending 30 percent or more of gross income on housing costs. Nearly 50 percent of households that rent are housing-cost burdened," according to the Missouri Census Data Center in 2018.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition determined Missourians would need to earn $16 per hour with a 40-hour paycheck to afford fair market value rent on a two-bedroom house to avoid paying more than 30 percent of their income, the News Tribune has previously reported.

Many paychecks are shrinking or disappearing completely. Across the United States, nearly 3.3 million people filed for unemployment the week of March 16, "about five times the previous high in 1982," the Associated Press reported.

In Missouri, more than 10 times as many unemployment claims were processed the week ending March 21 than the week before - a total of more than 42,000 individual claims, equal to nearly 25 percent of the total number of claims processed in all of 2019.

Raghuveer said the big picture of the rent issues caused by COVID-19 emerges "somewhere between those two numbers" of the already rent-burdened and the now unemployed, but even that would not necessarily include people like Manley, who still has work but not enough paid hours.

Many communities already faced shortages of affordable housing, including in Jefferson City, where the News Tribune reported last November that more than 750 people were waiting - years, for some - for access to an affordable home.

Damage wrought by other disasters, such as the May 2019 tornado in Jefferson City, also adds to communities' needs.

Raghuveer expects the situation with the pandemic to get worse in the coming months, and Camp said advocates were prepared to sit down with Parson, his staff and the Legislature to give guidance on how to make their demands happen.

"We deserve better. You deserve better," Manley said.

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