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Kansas City promised legal help for tenants facing eviction, but it keeps missing key deadlines

KC Tenants Right To Counsel
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
KC Tenants members rally outside City Hall in December to advocate for a right-to-counsel program for tenants. The City Council adopted such a program that same month.

The City Council passed an ordinance in December guaranteeing free legal representation to tenants in eviction court by June 1. But some of the requirements outlined in the ordinance haven't been fulfilled yet.

Kansas City resident Ruby Watson was excited when the City Council passed a law in December guaranteeing an attorney to any tenant in eviction court.

“It's important because oftentimes tenants, first of all, can't afford an attorney, which is probably why they were being evicted in the first place,” Watson said. “So they have to go to court alone, fearing that they will more than likely be evicted because they didn't have any representation to help work out, let's say, maybe a payment plan or something along those lines, as well as to avoid eviction.”

Without a lawyer, tenants are more likely to lose their case and end up with an eviction on their record. Recent data from the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, an organization supporting tenants’ right-to-counsel laws, found that an average of 3% of tenants are represented in eviction proceedings versus 81% of landlords.

Data from the Kansas City Eviction Project reflects that imbalance. From 2006 to 2016, only 1.3% of tenants were represented by an attorney in local eviction cases. By contrast, 84% of landlords had an attorney.

Kansas City is one of 12 cities in the United States that guarantees legal representation to tenants in eviction court. Data from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University shows that eviction filings in Kansas City increased in January and February this year.

“There are all sorts of attorneys for the landlords, but none for tenants,” Watson said. “The right to counsel — not only would it help them with their eviction, but tenants wouldn't have to worry about being homeless.”

The ordinance outlined a June 1 start for the right-to-counsel program, which provides attorneys free of charge to tenants facing eviction in court regardless of their income. But first the city must meet a number of deadlines, including hiring a tenant legal services director to oversee the program and executing contracts with legal service organizations to train and hire attorneys.

And with just three weeks to go, the city has done neither.

“This just needs to become an urgent priority,” said Tara Raghuveer, director of KC Tenants, a grassroots organization that urged adoption of the program. “There's still maybe time for the city to pull their act together and fully implement tenants’ right to counsel by June 1. But the clock is ticking.”

Watson, a KC Tenants leader who worked on the right-to-counsel policy team last year, said it feels like the city is intentionally dragging its feet.

“We can't afford to have tenants expecting to be represented and not be represented because they don't have anyone there to represent them,” Watson said.

Jane Brown, director of the city’s Housing Department who is overseeing the right-to-counsel program on an interim basis, said the city will search for a permanent director starting in a week or two.

Brown said the city’s legal department is preparing contracts with legal service organizations such as Legal Aid of Western Missouri, the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s School of Law and the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom. She said she’s confident those contracts will be executed this month.

She attributed some of the missed deadlines to staffing shortages in the Housing Department — she said there’s currently a 40% vacancy rate — and the relocation of the department’s offices earlier this year.

“We will get the program up and running soon,” Brown vowed. “It is possible that there will be a slight delay, but it won't be long. … We are dedicated to getting the program going.”

The city approved $2 million to fund the program for the coming fiscal year.

Under the ordinance, the Tenants’ Right to Counsel Committee must include seven voting members who are tenants and a non-voting representative from each of the participating legal services organizations.

Alicia Johnson, executive director of Legal Aid of Western Missouri, said in an email to KCUR that Legal Aid is optimistic the city will meet the June 1 deadline and the organization will have a contract in place.

Gina Chiala, executive director and a staff attorney at the Heartland Center, said her organization has yet to sign a contract with the city. She said she’s hopeful the program will be implemented by the deadline.

“But they've really got to move and focus and treat the ordinance with an extreme sense of urgency,” Chiala said. “And also recognize the requirements and the ordinance are not suggestions. This is a law that they passed and it's a mandate.”

Legal organizations like the Heartland Center know how difficult it is for a tenant to win an eviction case without a lawyer. The organization is one of a few that provides pro bono legal services to tenants in eviction court, with attorneys stationed at the Jackson County Courthouse every week.

“We all want to live in a city that doesn't want to allow evictions to happen, that we know can be stopped,” Chiala said. “We want to see a city where that is placed on the top of the priority list and treated with extreme urgency.”

Watson said she knows the pain and stress of undergoing an eviction without a lawyer by her side.

“I knew that I couldn't afford one,” Watson said, adding that she filed for bankruptcy after receiving her eviction notice. “In the meantime, I was hoping that I would get some work and I didn't. And so then it ended up forcing me into an early retirement.”

As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives. I break down political jargon so people can easily understand policies and how it affects them. My work is people-forward and centered on civic engagement and democracy. I hold political leaders and public officials accountable for the decisions they make and their impact on our communities. Follow me on Twitter @celisa_mia or email me at celisa@kcur.org.
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