ALMA — On Wednesday morning, Johnice White was scrambling, unsure of where she would go in four days if she couldn't pay her rent, but after calls to lawmakers and national media attention, her landlord says she and the other residents in subsidized housing can stay at least until the end of February.
Last Friday night, White and other residents at the Lindenwood Apartments in Alma and about 49 other complexes across the state received letters from their property owner, Annette Cowen, stating that because of the partial government shutdown, they had until Jan. 20 to either pay their rents in full or leave.
"Due to the shutdown of the federal government, your rental assistance portion of your rent is not being paid," the notice read in part. "Until the government opens again, you are responsible for ALL of your rental amount. Your complex is not in the business of furnishing free rent."
Cowen followed the letter with a notice that said the complex didn't want people to move out, but didn't have the money to let them stay without funding from the federal government.
"I'm desperate," White said of the moments after she found out about the Sunday deadline. "I'm to the point I'm desperate."
But Wednesday, Cowen said she'd gotten word from a U.S. Department of Agriculture representative that the department would finance the rental contracts through at least February and maybe longer.
A new notice, posted Wednesday night, told residents that the rent was covered for January, February and "hopefully the coming months."
"You all did a really good job by contacting your senators and representatives and you all got the job done! You can be assured that all the news people are aware of our situation both statewide and nationwide. Thank you for the help! Your voice does matter!"
"Hopefully our government will open back up soon and our lives will be back to normal," the new release read.
The government shutdown began Dec. 22 over arguments about funding to construct a border wall between the United States and Mexico. The longest shutdown in U.S. history means that federal departments that help people with low incomes pay their rents aren't fully operating.
By the end of February, thousands of Arkansans who receive rental assistance through the USDA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 8 programs could face the choice of paying their rents without assistance or leaving their homes if their landlords can't afford to foot the bill until the government reopens.
"It trickles down," Cowen said Wednesday. "The only way my management gets paid is from managing these complexes."
She added that any tenants who had already paid their full rents for next month would be reimbursed.
Cowen's Friday letter suggested that renters in 1,204 households across her 50 apartment complexes contact their senators and representatives in Washington, if they wanted their rental assistance to be paid.
"I think that is the reason that I got a call from Washington," Cowen said of the calls her residents made to lawmakers.
There was no response to an email sent to the USDA in Washington, and no one answered calls in the Fort Smith field office.
Tenants at Cowen's apartments get rental assistance from the USDA's Rural Development department. White pays $216 each month out of her disability check for rent and gets $391 from the federal government.
"I don't know what to do," White said before she learned that her rent would be paid. "I don't know who else to turn to."
White, 60, said she'd called the USDA office, the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, politicians in Washington and state legislators about the issue. Her daughter lives next door, and White watches her grandchildren and a friend's children, whom she calls her "heart grandbabies."
The children -- a 5-year-old, 2-year-old and an 8-month-old -- watched cartoons and played with stuffed animals on the floor Wednesday while White wondered aloud where she could go.
A reminder that says "pay rent" was taped to the back of her door.
When the government shut down, she said, she didn't realize it could affect her housing.
She thinks the country needs border security -- more officers or drones -- but says the border wall isn't worth risking her home over.
"There's no money to help our homeless, the elderly, the disabled," she said.
Her complex has 24 households, which she said are occupied mostly by senior citizens, people who are disabled and single mothers.
White moved into the complex in 2004 after her divorce and said she is unable to work because of her disability. Her daughter works as a waitress.
"My child is in the same boat that I am, but I can't help her," White said.
Metro on 01/17/2019