Kansas City prevented hundreds of evictions by providing attorneys. Now the program is growing
Since launching last June, right to counsel has helped hundreds of tenants avoid eviction, proof to advocates that the program is working.
When Briashauna Wallace received an eviction notice last month, she says it was a horrible feeling. The single mother was facing an expedited eviction — if she lost her case, she would have only 24 hours to leave her South Kansas City apartment.
Wallace attended her first hearing alone. Then she got connected with attorneys from the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, a local legal nonprofit. They told her they would represent her for free.
Wallace’s second court appearance took place on a rainy Thursday afternoon in March at the Jackson County Courthouse. This time, she wasn’t alone.
The judge dismissed Wallace’s case, meaning she won’t end up with an eviction on her record. The dismissal means Wallace and the property management can come to a settlement — now, Wallace has until the end of April to leave her apartment.
Wallace feels relieved. She says if it wasn’t for her attorneys, “I wouldn’t have been able to win my case.”
Wallace’s case shows the success of Kansas City’s right to counsel program, which provides free legal representation to tenants facing eviction. In less than a year, right to counsel prevented evictions for hundreds of tenants. Now, the program is poised to get more funding from Kansas City officials for the upcoming fiscal year — $1.6 million, up from $750,000. Legal organizations involved in the program say more money will give it needed stability.
“That will allow the program to scale up the number of attorneys who are representing tenants,” said Gina Chiala, executive director and staff attorney at the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom. “It will also make sure that the funding for the program stays stable and steady.”
About $700,000 of the initial funding last year allowed legal organizations to hire attorneys and provide legal training last year. But it was set to run out, making new funding from the city even more integral.
In the proposed budget for the 2023-2024 fiscal year, right to counsel received $1.1 million. At Kansas City’s first public budget hearing on Feb. 25, several tenants demanded the council increase that funding.
KC Tenants leader Tiana Caldwell told council members that she lost an eviction case last November. She wasn’t able to get an attorney through the right to counsel program.
“We had been denied our right to counsel because there weren't enough lawyers to meet the capacity of tenants being evicted, because the tenant's right to counsel implemented by our city is not guaranteed because it is not fully funded,” she said in her testimony.
The city upped funding by another half a million dollars.
“We are so thankful for the services,” said City Manager Brian Platt. “We prevented hundreds of evictions. It's a great service to our residents and we're on board.”
Three legal organizations provide attorneys for the right to counsel program: the Heartland Center, Legal Aid of Western Missouri and the University of Missouri-Kansas City law school. There are currently 12 attorneys representing tenants.
“This last year we had significantly more tenants access this project than what any of the three legal providers anticipated,” said Alicia Johnson, executive director of the Legal Aid of Western Missouri. “To know that there is a stable funding source, to know that we can really zero our efforts in on providing the legal advocacy that we need to be providing to our tenants without worrying about the funding piece of it is absolutely critical.”
An eviction on a tenant’s record can make it more difficult to find housing in the future. Evictions also cause financial, emotional and mental distress. Before Kansas City enacted right to counsel, it was common for tenants to show up to court without a lawyer, or not show up at all. Tenants were more likely to lose their cases as a result.
According to updated data from the Heartland Center, right to counsel attorneys have taken 1,200 eviction cases and 771 of them have been resolved. Of those resolved cases, 91.5% of tenants have avoided eviction – almost a complete reversal from the 99% of tenants who were evicted before the program, Chiala said.
“I think the program is doing exactly what it was designed to do,” Chiala said. “Having an attorney is so important because it literally keeps tenants housed and families housed and it allows us to negotiate fair settlement agreements with landlords.”
Kansas City is one of 15 cities nationwide with a right to counsel program for tenants in eviction court. Tenants can access a free attorney regardless of their income level by calling a hotline number. Legal organizations also receive eviction cases and reach out to tenants. Some judges let tenants know about their right to an attorney when they show up to court.
“For a tenant to be able to walk in and to know that they have an attorney there who understands the court system, who understands the pleadings that have been filed and who is there to represent them is a huge relief for tenants,” said Johnson, Legal Aid’s executive director. “Sometimes for them it means the difference between them actually going to court and not going to court.”
Evictions in Kansas City have been increasing. Data from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University shows there were 753 eviction filings in Kansas City last month, compared to 619 last February.
Tenants still fall through the cracks and go to eviction court without representation.
“There's been an increase in filings by landlords and there's been a high participation, which is good, by tenants,” Chiala said. “And so those two things combined to mean increased caseloads and a need for more attorneys.”
Johnson with Legal Aid says funding needs may increase in the future as the program is likely to need even more lawyers to meet demand.
“At its very essence, this is a housing stability program,” Johnson said. “The idea here is for tenants to be able to have a stable housing situation, and it is to everyone's interest for there to be housing stability across our city.”
The Kansas City Council will adopt the 2023-2024 budget later this week.
Tenants who live in Kansas City and are facing eviction and want to access the right to counsel program can call the hotline at 816-474-5112.