Gov. Kelly considering relief for Kansas renters, homeowners struggling from pandemic

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Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly.

TOPEKA, Kan. — Gov. Laura Kelly said Friday that her administration will consider using part of Kansas’ share of federal coronavirus relief funds to help people struggling to pay their rents or home mortgages because of economic problems tied to the pandemic.

Kelly defended a May 26 decision to rescind an executive order that had banned landlords from pursuing new evictions or lenders from starting to foreclose on home mortgages.

She said she had to lift the order because keeping it in place would have stressed lenders and businesses that rent homes and apartments.

The governor rescinded the order as she lifted all statewide restrictions on businesses and left it to the state’s 105 counties to determine their own rules for checking the spread of the new coronavirus.

She said reopening the economy and improving the state’s delivery of unemployment benefits — a problem for weeks — eased the stress on renters and home owners.

But housing advocates have worried that a wave of evictions and mortgage foreclosures is coming.

“I want struggling Kansans to know that I understand how you feel and how fearful you remain for your future,” Kelly said, calling such a program “a top priority” during a Statehouse news conference.

The Democratic governor also told reporters that she hopes to avoid two big financial maneuvers that past governors from both parties have used to avoid cuts in state programs.

She said she does not intend to divert money from highway projects or short the state’s payments to its pension system for teachers and government workers to help close a shortfall in the next state budget.

While those moves prevented year-to-year cuts in the past, they delayed road projects and left the state with pension obligations to pay later.

The state faces a projected shortfall of about $600 million for the budget year that begins in July. Kelly said she hopes to avoid cutting spending that’s vital to boosting the economy, including funding for public schools.

But she added: “I haven’t committed to not touching anything at this point.”

She and other state officials have justified the lifting of restrictions on businesses by saying that weekslong trends show the growth in new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths slowing.

But Kansas’ four most populous counties reported dozens of new coronavirus cases in the past two days, with the state Department of Health and Environment saying Friday that Kansas has had a total of 10,393 cases since the pandemic reached the state in early March. That’s up 2.2% or 223 from Monday.

The department’s figures show that 70% of the new cases over the past two days — 156 in all — came from only four counties.

They were Sedgwick County, home to the state’s largest city, Wichita; Shawnee County, home to Topeka, and Johnson and Wyandotte counties in the Kansas City area, the state’s first hot spot. Those four counties have about half the state’s 2.9 million residents.

The state reported 10 new COVID-19-related deaths over the past two days, up 4% to 232.

Kansas has received $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds, and $116 million already has been allocated to Johnson County and almost $100 million, to Sedgwick County.

An economic recovery task force appointed by Kelly has proposed distributing $400 million to other counties and cities to cover their coronavirus-related costs, and the governor hopes they receive the funds later this month.

That would leave about $634 million, with plans to distribute it before November.

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