With her stimulus payment in hand and a small cushion of personal savings, Victoria Altic was able to cover this month's rent on her three-bedroom Springfield apartment.


But now, with the May rent nearly due, she's worried that she and her two children may be on the verge of homelessness. Altic was laid off from her job as a restaurant cook. And a promising position with the U.S. Census Bureau is now up in the air after the federal agency delayed its count of all Americans.


"I'm scared," she said. "I feel like I'm running out of options."


With short-term protections for renters set to sunset soon, the pandemic has tenant advocates fearing a looming crisis of evictions and homelessness as more than half a million Kansans and Missourians find themselves suddenly out of work.


But landlords and property owners, with their own bills to pay, say they aren't in a position to offer widespread relief to renters who can't pay.


The Wooten Company, which manages Altic's apartment complex, recently sent a note to tenants, saying it would consider individual requests to pay April or May rent late. But the company said renters were still subject to eviction if their requests were not granted.


The company, which declined to comment when reached by The Star, also noted that Congress approved stimulus payments and expanded unemployment benefits to individuals.


"Congress felt if the individuals who received the stimulus funds used them for their intended purposes, landlords would not need relief," the note said.


But Altic's situation shows it's not always that simple.


She's relying on an ever-diminishing amount of savings and waiting for unemployment benefits from the state. She said her problem is not unique. And it's why she's been actively involved with the efforts of KC Tenants, which is calling for statewide protections for struggling renters.


"The truth is, if we can't go to work or we can't get any type of income, landlords are not going to get paid," said Altic, 31. "We can't be kicking people out of their homes. When you're homeless you're much more likely to get sick. And you're much more likely to spread COVID-19."


Many renters are currently protected. Local court systems have halted progress on eviction cases, but landlords can still file them. Meanwhile, back rent is piling up among struggling tenants.


Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly temporarily suspended foreclosures and evictions until May 1 in an executive order. But that order was updated days later to one that bars evictions and foreclosures only in cases where an individual's financial hardship was "substantially caused" by the pandemic. The order does not stop previously filed eviction proceedings or evictions and foreclosures that are unrelated to the pandemic.


"We are deeply concerned about what we believe is going to be a tidal wave of eviction cases," said Gina Chiala, executive director of the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, which represents low-income tenants and workers.


Chiala said the number of evictions filed has remained steady so far. But the cases being filed will build into a backlog that would all hit the courts once they reopen. Since widespread layoffs began, tenants have only had to come up with one month's rent.


But many are now struggling to put together payments due the first of May. And she expects a wave of future evictions to overwhelm the courts and local homeless shelters.


"I don't know what other word to use except it's going to be extremely ugly," Chiala said. "It's going to be horrifying."


Statewide push


Chiala's organization is part of the statewide Coalition to Protect Missouri Tenants, which has demanded a statewide moratorium on landlords filing eviction cases. It also wants to see a government-mandated rent and mortgage suspension program.


Aside from local court orders, a Missouri Supreme Court order barring many in-person proceedings is protecting tenants for now.


But Chiala said Jackson County has begun issuing notices that it will handle some of the landlord-tenant docket remotely starting April 30, asking tenants to appear by phone or video conference. Her organization — and other legal groups and housing advocates — want the court to reconsider what she called an "untenable" procedure.


"If you're in jail, the jail can provide you with the technology you need to access the courts," she said. "But if you are a tenant and you don't have a phone that works, especially with the crisis causing people to fall behind on bills and lose their phones, then you actually lose all access to the courts, and we cannot imagine that that process could possibly pass muster under a due process analysis."


Valerie Hartman, public information officer for the Jackson County Court, said the court has to treat litigants fairly and cannot protect landlords over tenants. But even if judges start hearing landlord-tenant cases remotely this week, Jackson County still has an order preventing evictions from being executed until May 18.


"It is possible, given the on-going concerns about social distancing, that cases on high volume types of dockets will continue to be held by telephone or video conference for some time," Hartman said. "Nationwide, other courts are finding that some litigants appreciate the opportunity to have a hearing in a manner that does not require a trip to the courthouse."


Whenever current protections end, tenants may have to come up with enough money to cover past-due rent. And Jane Worley, a supervising attorney for Legal Aid of Western Missouri, expects many will "have a really tough time figuring out how to get that paid back."


"I think it's going to be pretty devastating," Worley said. "I mean, people were struggling before. There's been a housing crisis in Kansas City for at least two or three years."


The number of tenant-landlord cases filed in Jackson County in March — 521 — was down from February and from March 2019. So far in April, about 100 landlord-tenant cases have been filed. Those numbers include eviction suits, along with landlords looking to remove squatters or other individuals without lease agreements.


With the courts essentially on pause, Worley said Kansas City may see a rise in what she called "self-help evictions," where landlords change locks or turn off power or other utilities to force tenants out, a practice she noted was illegal.


Some landlords are offering flexibility to struggling tenants.


The KC Regional Housing Alliance, a group of property managers, landlords, investors and real estate agents, says its members routinely work with renters struggling financially — with or without a pandemic.


That group supports current eviction moratoriums, but doesn't want to see any other policy changes for renters or rent strikes.


"We know that a good tenant will likely continue to be a good tenant once this emergency is over, and it is in both parties' best interests to work together to our mutual benefit. We do not need public policy to do what is naturally occurring in our market and governed by contracts," Stacey Johnson-Cosby, president of the alliance, said in a news release. "We are naturally motivated to work together since we need each other to exist."


Landlord's note goes viral


Despite the unprecedented economic conditions, some landlords are taking a hard line stance with tenants. Like the Springfield apartment complex, many have pointed to the federal stimulus money, arguing it and unemployment benefits exist to help pay rent.


A Clay County landlord went viral for the note she left on her tenants' doors, reminding them that rent was due April 1 and that if she hadn't received it by the 8th, she would file for eviction.


"If you are short on money this month because of working shorter hours, then get or borrow money from your friends or relatives," the note says. "I am not your family or your banker."


The Star's efforts to reach the landlord were unsuccessful. The post with her landline and cell phone numbers was widely shared on social media. Calls to her landline were not answered and the cell phone had apparently been disconnected.


One of her tenants, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, said the note was "uncalled for" and showed no compassion. The tenant said the landlord also threatened not to pay the water bill for the six-plex building if residents failed to pay rent.


"At the very least, she could have been a little bit more compassionate of what is going on," the tenant said, "understood that people may not be able to get unemployment with the drop of a hat...and to actually get the stimulus and the things that will help us pay our bills might take a little bit longer."


With hundreds of thousands of people out of work, the tenant said flexibility would benefit both landlords and tenants.


"It doesn't make sense to be flipping people in and out of places constantly," the renter said. "It makes sense to retain your tenants. That way, you don't have a vacant apartment."


But evictions could accelerate faster in the parts of Clay County outside of Kansas City.


To the chagrin of some local public health officials, Clay County last week decided to move up the expiration of its stay-home order. It had originally planned to stick with Kansas City in enforcing the shutdown through May 15. But last week, Clay and Cass counties both moved that date up to May 4.


Tom St. John, a captain in the Clay County Sheriff's Office, who saw the landlord's note on social media, said "it was kind of a nasty, heartless letter."


Clay County's 7th Judicial Circuit Court has halted civil processes like evictions. So even if the landlord were to file an eviction suit, it won't be heard and the sheriff's office will not be evicting at this time.


"She can threaten them all she wants," St. John said. "But I don't believe she can even self-evict them at this point."


Still, he said the cases against renters — like other legal proceedings — are likely piling up. And the sheriff's office already had some previously adjudicated evictions that have not been executed yet.


"Once the court gets going we're just going to be pounded with not only civil orders, but a lot of the court cases," he said. "There's no in-person court. So the people they filed against don't have the right to due process. It's all being held until this is over."


Advocates want rent canceled


Last Monday, KC Tenants and fellow advocates lined up their cars along Interstate 70 across Missouri to demand protections and relief for renters. They want Gov. Mike Parson to suspend rent and mortgage payments, ban utility shutoffs and evictions and expand service for the homeless during the state of emergency and the ensuing economic recovery.


The group suggests a fund to provide relief for landlords whose tenants aren't paying rent — assuming they observe certain tenant protections. The call is similar to a federal bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, that would cancel all rent and mortgages and provide relief to landlords through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.


The governor has resisted those calls, saying "we're not going to do an order for the entire state to allow people not to pay your rent."


"There's a process in place for that, and that system needs to work," Parson said Monday.


Anthony Holmes, a board member of the Missouri Apartment Association, said it's too early for widespread rent forgiveness programs. He said government supports like stimulus payments, unemployment benefits and small business loans were helping many tenants make their rent — so far.


"April was not affected too much on regular rent payments," he said. "We are concerned about May and June, but it all depends on how long the shutdown lasts and every situation is different."


He noted that property owners still must pay their mortgages, property taxes and insurance, while also maintaining landscaping and communal amenities. With "no magical process or plan" on the horizon, he said renters should talk with landlords as soon as they experience any financial hardship.


"Both residents and owners are just trying to do the best that they can considering what's going on," he said. "As long as everybody is treated fairly, we can all make it through this together."


But even tenants who remain employed may be facing hardships.


Jenay Manley is working full time, but that hasn't been enough to shield her from the economic crisis. The single mother of two who lives in Gladstone no longer has the support she needs for child care — overnight while she's working or during the day when she needs to sleep.


She sometimes receives help from her great aunt, but worries about putting her in danger of contracting the virus.


Manley, a leader in KC Tenants, isn't sure how she'll pay May rent. She wants to see rent canceled altogether. That, she said, would help her pay for the childcare she desperately needs while her children's school is closed. Besides that, she knows once courts start processing evictions again, any protections she would have if she doesn't make her rent disappear.


"No one's doing OK. I'm working 46 hours a week, and I can tell you I'm not doing OK," she said. "...I feel alone and lost."


Pandemic complicates moves


The pandemic has also complicated the plans of tenants who already were planning to move between rentals.


Jessica Fulgem-Jarmon signed a new lease on a Gladstone apartment in late March. But days before her April 9 scheduled move, she was unexpectedly laid off along with more than 400 others from her job working remotely for at a temp agency.


Her apartment complex had used previous paycheck stubs to verify her income when she applied. Fulgem-Jarmon reported her job loss, but ensured the property manager that her unemployment benefits would allow her to still pay rent.


"I was honest about my situation," she said. "All I needed was the chance and opportunity to prove I could afford this place."


But she said the property manager told her she couldn't move in without full-time employment. That left her without a home, as a new tenant was already scheduled to move into her previous apartment.


"Unemployment benefits are supposed to be used for us to maintain and stabilize our households. And you're not allowing me to do that," Fulgem-Jarmon said she told the apartment manager.


The Star's calls to the apartment complex were not answered.


In her situation, timing was everything: If she had moved in first and later lost her job, she said her unemployment benefits would have helped her pay the rent and stay in the new apartment.


But for now, her furniture is in storage and she and her sons are camped out in the living room of her mother's small apartment.


"It's somewhere for us to lay our heads," she said.


Nathan Charlson and Tami McCann were saving for a deposit and the first month's rent on a new place as their landlord planned to sell their home in Kansas City's Eastern 49-63 neighborhood. Then, they were furloughed from their jobs at Freshwater, a Midtown seafood restaurant.


Hunting for a new place during a pandemic presented its own set of challenges. Hardly anyone was showing homes, Charlson said. Now, their landlord is trying to evict them and recover back rent that they said she waived in an effort to help them move out quicker.


Though they have found a new place, Charlson said he expects missed paychecks and late rent payments will give way to "mass evictions" as business closures wreak havoc on renters' finances.


"I know a lot of people who make a lot less money than we do and would not be able to pull it together like we did," Charlson said, "and it's not because they don't have the ambition or the drive to do so. They just don't make enough money...and I see a lot of people going out on the streets, and...I really don't see the government stepping in to help anybody."