A Kansas City program has prevented more than 1,000 evictions since June 2022
The city's Right to Counsel program provides free legal representation to tenants who end up in eviction court. Program leaders say it's working.
It used to be common for Kansas City renters who found themselves in eviction court to show up to court without an attorney, lose their cases and their homes and end up with marks on their records.
Those eviction judgments would haunt them, making it exponentially harder to find housing in the future.
But since Kansas City established its right to counsel program — providing free attorneys to tenants who end up in eviction court — lawyers are seeing that dynamic change dramatically.
“Across the program, they're avoiding eviction the vast majority of time,” said Gina Chiala, an attorney with the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom who represents tenants in eviction court. “So it's really turning the statistics on their head.”
The Kansas City Council first approved creating the right to counsel program two years ago. It officially began in June 2022, and since then, thousands of tenants have avoided eviction.
According to recent data from the city, 2,042 cases have received legal representation since the start of the program. In 1,672 of those cases — about 82% — the judge either dismissed the case or ruled in favor of the tenant.
From the beginning of this year to Dec. 20, right to counsel attorneys represented 2,056 eviction cases, and 1,506 have been resolved. Of those resolved cases, 79% were dismissed or resulted in a ruling in favor of the tenant, according to data from Legal Aid.
Kansas City contracts with three legal organizations to administer the program and provide legal representation: Legal Aid of Western Missouri, the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom and the University of Missouri-Kansas City law school.
Legal Aid alone has taken 901 cases, and 672 have been resolved.
Chiala, executive director and staff attorney at the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, sees the difference the program makes. Since it began, Chiala said the Heartland Center has been able to hire more attorneys to represent tenants in eviction cases.
By January, she said, the nonprofit will have four attorneys providing right to counsel services.
“I think it's gone really well. We have continued to be able to stop the vast majority of evictions that we handle, and that's across all three legal services organizations who have implemented right to counsel.” Chiala said. “It’s still true that having a lawyer in housing court means the difference between being housed or being on the streets.”
Spike in evictions means some tenants fall through the cracks
Tenants are eligible for free legal representation regardless of their income and as long as they are a Kansas City resident. Still, there are not enough attorneys across Legal Aid, the Heartland Center and UMKC to serve every Kansas City tenant who ends up in eviction court.
One problem, Chiala said, is that eviction filings have increased this year.
“We haven't been able to reach full representation of all tenants who want it yet, but we're getting closer and closer,” she said. “We're also hoping that the eviction filings come down, like they normally do in other cities when the right to counsel exists.”
According to data from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, eviction filings in Kansas City have been trending upward since 2020. Landlords have filed 9,101 evictions in Kansas City from this January to the beginning of December. That’s more than last year, when they filed 7,780 evictions from January through November.
Chiala attributes the increase in evictions to rising rents.
“The market conditions have really incentivized landlords to evict people from their homes when they have an opportunity to, in order to raise rents,” Chiala said.
Michelle Albano, an attorney with Legal Aid of Western Missouri, said current economic conditions, like inflation, are another factor. She said most eviction cases Legal Aid sees are rent and possession, meaning a tenant has fallen behind on paying rent.
“The cost of living has increased so much — people are just not able to make ends meet,” Albano said. “I think it's kind of particularly bad at this time period.”
Kansas City allocated $1.6 million to the right to counsel program for the 2023-2024 fiscal year. Attorneys agree the program will need more money next year to increase staff and represent more tenants.
Supporters of the program say that while it helps, the program will not solve Kansas City’s affordable housing problem.
“It does a lot to stem the bleeding of the housing crisis, but it doesn't fix it,” Chiala said. “We need affordable housing and we need livable wages and we need union rights in order to be able to actually holistically fix a problem.”