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Kansas City renters will soon get free legal help in eviction court, in a win for KC Tenants

People in yellow and red T-shirts, some carrying signs, raise their hands in celebration inside council chambers at Kansas City City Hall.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Supporters of the Tenants' Right to Counsel ordinance celebrate after the ordinance passed in Thursday's city council meeting in Kansas City.

A previous pilot program funded by Kansas City showed that the vast majority of renters who received legal representation were not evicted. The newly-approved ordinance would provide representation to tenants, regardless of income.

Renters facing eviction in Kansas City will have access to free legal representation by the summer.

The Kansas City Council voted unanimously on Thursday to create a program that would offer attorneys to tenants, regardless of income.

Tiana Caldwell, a leader with KC Tenants, one of the groups behind the measure, said its passage means she and her family will have a fair shot at keeping their home.

“As a mother, I just know that my son will never have to stand in court worried about losing his home and being homeless without representation, and that’s amazing,” Caldwell said following the vote.

KC Tenants, the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, and the Missouri Workers Center/Stand Up KC worked with Councilwoman Andrea Bough to write the measure.

The ordinance gives city manager Brian Platt 90 days to identify funding for the program. Supporters of the ordinance have said federal COVID-19 relief money can get the program up and running, but that Kansas City will need to identify consistent funding sources to maintain the program beyond a few years.

According to Bough, who sponsored the ordinance, the right to counsel program will cost around $2.5 million annually. She said if the program is not funded with federal money after the pandemic, the city has the money to support it.

Bough added the program is beneficial to all parties involved and will save the city money in the long run, by preventing some costs of providing shelter and other services for unhoused people.

Other cities that have adopted this, which there are about 12 cities and three states, have seen anywhere from $3 saved for every $1 spent to up to $10 to $15 saved,” Bough said.

Bough also said this ordinance will go a long way in addressing the root causes of the city’s affordable housing shortage.

“We as a city have conversations about affordability and houselessness and we’re often addressing the end result. We need to address the actual cause,” says Bough. “We can find the money. We can pay $2.5 million now, or we can pay $5-7 million later.”

Bough said the program should be fully implemented by June 2022.

Councilwoman Katheryn Shields praised a group of local organizations that’s already been working on behalf of tenants, and said she hoped the city could continue working with them moving forward. A group of 10 lawyers from the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, Legal Aid of Western Missouri, and UMKC formed last year with funding from a federal COVID relief grant.

Addressing a power imbalance between landlords and tenants

Tara Raghuveer, a leader for KC Tenants, said landlords are represented in eviction court more than 90% of the time, whereas less than 3% of renters are represented.

“Eviction court is not a place where you see justice occur. It’s really a performance of justice, it looks a lot like a debt collection or an auction,” says Raghuveer. “In many cases, tenants don’t show up to court because they already know what the outcome is, it feels like it’s been predetermined.”

Attorney Laurie Snell, a family law attorney in Kansas City, said offering free legal help would help even out the power imbalance between landlords and tenants. Speaking before a city council committee Wednesday, Snell said she represents many clients whose parental rights are threatened by eviction.

“I can attest that the eviction system in Kansas City is broken, mostly advantageous to landlords, and most importantly costs poor families the rights to live together,” Snell said.

Snell added that most people facing eviction are not able to seek legal counsel due to a lack of money, and having an eviction on your record makes it nearly impossible to find housing.

In response to the pandemic, Kansas City funded three eviction defense attorneys in 2020. The program showed more than 90% of tenants who sought legal counsel avoided eviction and homelessness, but in a city with around 8,000 evictions annually, advocates said three attorneys was not enough.

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga reports on health disparities in access and health outcomes in both rural and urban areas.
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