Bah Humbug! Kansas City Landlords About To Find It A Lot Harder To Throw Families Into The Street
It's turning out to be a big week for small but important victories for the little guy!
Kansas City, Missouri, will now provide universal legal representation to tenants facing eviction — meaning that instead of just being thrown out of their homes with no recourse, evicted tenants will now actually have the right to due process, regardless of their financial situation. The measure passed unanimously out of committee on Wednesday, with the council chamber filled with supporters in red and yellow T-shirts cheering as they heard the news.
Universal legal counsel for tenants is already a reality in Washington, Maryland (just this fall!), and Connecticut, as well as in 12 individual cities, but Kansas City's ordinance would be the first one like it in the Midwest.
“[T]his ordinance provides legal representation to those families and individuals deprived of a basic human right to housing,” Councilwoman Andrea Bough told the Kansas City Star. “It will provide housing and economic stability to tenants, landlords and Kansas City.”
Only about 10 percent of tenants regularly have counsel when they're facing eviction proceedings; with a lawyer, tenants go from being evicted in 95 percent of cases, to staying in their homes a supermajority of the time, per the ACLU. Which is why an affirmed right for tenants to have counsel when they're at risk of losing their homes is such a big, important damn deal.
And these measures actually work. 86 percent of tenants who had representation as a result of New York City’s right to counsel legislation were able to remain in their homes. In San Francisco, the eviction filing rate decreased by 10 percent between 2018 and 2019, and of those receiving full representation, 67 percent stayed in their homes. Providing a right to counsel allows people and families to keep their homes and communities, and in the time of a pandemic, promotes public health.
The Star reports that the new policy will cost the city an estimated $2.5 million, which will go to training and paying lawyers and other initiatives, such as:
- Outreach to tenants: The city and property owners would be required to notify tenants of their right to counsel. When a case is filed, the city would reach out within 10 days to remind tenants of that right and how to exercise it.
- City staffing and centralized intake: Kansas City would hire a Tenants’ Legal Services and Assistance Director to coordinate.
- High quality legal representation: Kansas City would work with legal service providers to ensure trained representation for tenants.
- Tenants’ committee: The mayor would appoint a Tenants’ Right to Counsel Committee, made up of seven tenants and non-voting members from legal organizations, to provide oversight.
- Yearly report on tenants served: The director and committee would give a report to the mayor, City Council and city manager each September.
- Full funding: The city would eventually fund the program through a recurring, non-discretionary source to guarantee the right to counsel.
The only voice opposed to the new policy was Stacey Johnson-Cosby, the president of a local landlords' organization who argued that the money should instead go to helping people pay rent, as the main reason for eviction is an inability to pay rent. But Gina Chiala, executive director and lead attorney with the Heartland Center, said that one of the things the legal representation for tenants will be doing is making sure rental assistance gets fairly distributed.
Kansas City has experienced an entirely unsurprising surge in evictions this year following the lifting of the eviction moratorium, which in turn has led (again, unsurprisingly) to an increase in crime and gun violence. The Star reported earlier this year that "of the 10 Jackson County census tracts with the highest numbers of shootings, all but one also had higher than average eviction rates."
Kicking people out of their homes has consequences — serious ones. It's hard to get housing again after being evicted, meaning that those who are evicted frequently end up on the streets. It puts people in an unnecessarily desperate position, and keeping people housed ought to be a high priority in every area in the country, because the fact is, when everyone is housed, everyone benefits. Keeping people housed means safer, more stable communities for us all, not to mention that it costs taxpayers less money to keep people housed than it does to have them be homeless, so not letting people get kicked out of their homes in the first place is a win for everyone in Kansas City, whether they're renters or not.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse