‘Keep a roof over our heads’: KC proposal would guarantee legal representation to tenants

·5 min read

When they were evicted a few winters ago, a purple 2002 Dodge minivan became home for Terrence Wise and his family.

One daughter in the back seat tossed and turned, her eyes wide as she tried to rest — a memory he’ll never forget.

Wise has been fighting for policies that guarantee dignity ever since.

Last winter, facing another eviction, Wise found help from the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom. An attorney represented him in court and he won, allowing him to stay in his home until the lease ended. Last week, He and his wife and three daughters moved into a new home.

“No one in the city should ever have to go at it alone when their home is on the line,” Wise, a leader with Stand Up KC, said.

Terrence Wise, a leader with Missouri Workers Center KC, stands with a crowd of other community organizers outside City Hall Thursday to introduce an ordinance that would establish tenants’ tight to counsel in Kansas City.
Terrence Wise, a leader with Missouri Workers Center KC, stands with a crowd of other community organizers outside City Hall Thursday to introduce an ordinance that would establish tenants’ tight to counsel in Kansas City.

Dozens of people with KC Tenants, Stand Up KC and the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom rallied outside City Hall Thursday for an ordinance that would guarantee legal representation to tenants facing eviction.

Councilwoman Andrea Bough, District 6 at-large, is expected to introduce a measure that would establish a tenants’ right to counsel. Bough was not at the press conference because she was ill. Tiana Caldwell, a leader with KC Tenants, read a statement on her behalf.

“This ordinance is about housing stability and ensuring that individuals who are being deprived of a basic human right receive legal representation,” she read. “Working together, we can provide a system that works for all.”

The program would cost about $2.5 million annually. It would guarantee a tenant legal representation, regardless of income, when a landlord sues for eviction. It would also provide outreach to raise tenants’ awareness of the initiative.

Fair representation

Wise said tenants want a good relationship with their landlords and humane results in court.

“I know that my landlord has to pay rent, take care of his family as well,” Wise said. “We’re not naive to that. This helps everyone in our city, not a select few.”

Ninety percent of the time landlords go to court, they have lawyers with them according to data from KC Tenants and the Heartland Center.. Tenants facing eviction in Kansas City seldom have representation.

Gina Chiala, executive director and lead attorney with the Heartland Center, said a tenant without an eviction on their records is much more likely to stay housed in the long-term.

Gina Chiala, executive director and lead attorney for Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, speaks on the importance of an ordinance that would establish tenants’ right to counsel at Thursday at City Hall in Kansas City.
Gina Chiala, executive director and lead attorney for Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, speaks on the importance of an ordinance that would establish tenants’ right to counsel at Thursday at City Hall in Kansas City.

“Having a lawyer means the difference for a tenant between being housed and being homeless,” said Chiala, adding that of the more than 300 tenants her organization has represented since last summer, nearly all avoided eviction.

The Heartland Center, Legal Aid of Western Missouri and the University of Missouri-Kansas City currently provide legal assistance to tenants. But they can only do so much.

In 2016, the Eviction Lab at Princeton found that Kansas City ranked as the 65th most evicting city in the country, with 3,776. That is a little over 10 households every day and 4 out of 100 rental properties every year.

Roughly 9,000 cases are filed in Jackson County annually, Chiala said.

Caldwell said she’s never had a lawyer by her side during an eviction. When she’s walked to the courtroom door, it feels like she has already lost, she said. She remembers the feeling in the pit of her stomach, the worry on the faces of other people getting evicted.

“You can hear the hustle and bustle of court, but it’s in the background,” Caldwell said. “Mostly what you hear is your heart pounding in your chest. It’s the loudest thing in the room.”

The cases, over in minutes, reinforce the feeling that the judgment was already decided, she said.

“By now, it should be clear to everyone how oppressive, dehumanizing and unjust the current eviction process is for tenants who can’t afford legal counsel,” Caldwell said.

Tenants comprise 46% of Kansas City’s residents. Of those, 44% are considered cost-burdened.

Most poor and working class tenants, Caldwell said, one emergency away from an eviction — a cause and condition of poverty. Black women are disproportionately vulnerable due to systemic injustices in housing, she added.

Having a lawyer provides tenants a chance for fairness while also giving tenants confidence and hope, Caldwell said.

Here’s what the policy would include:

  • 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.

How to pay for it

The estimated annual $2.5 million cost would cover staff and contracts for outreach, training and legal representation. The figure is based on the number of evictions filed annually and the expectation that the number will decline if more tenants have lawyers.

Federal money would fund the program for the first two years, giving time for the city to find a permanent source.

KC Tenants said a similar program in Los Angeles saved $3.50 for every $1 invested in getting tenants representation.

In total, 12 cities, including New York City, Philadelphia and Cleveland, and three states — Washington, Maryland and Connecticut — have implemented Tenants’ Right to Counsel.

The program would be available to anyone and not restricted based on income. It would allow lawyers to get moving quickly and prevent people from falling through the cracks.

Wise said his daughters, 16, 18 and 19, told him they now feel safe and hopeful in their new home.

“Today we’re calling on City Council to take up this ordinance and pass it, not only pass it but fully fund it and help keep the working class in their homes in the bare minimum, keep a roof over our heads, y’all,” Wise said. “That’s all we asking.”

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