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Newly Unemployed Renters In Kansas And Missouri Face Uncertain Protection From Eviction

Dan Margolies
KCUR 89.3
Erin White lost her job a couple of weeks ago because of the coronavirus pandemic. She asked the manager of her apartment complex to defer her rent. The company refused.

As April's rent becomes due across the Kansas City metro, tenants face an uncertain legal landscape subject to the vagaries of the coronavirus and how soon its spread can be stopped.

That's been the case for tenants such as Erin White, who rents an apartment in Skyler Ridge, a 200-unit complex on 115th Street just west of Metcalf Avenue in Overland Park.

After White was laid off from her job at the Amazing Lash Studio in Overland Park (it was deemed a “non-essential” business), she knew unemployment would cover about half the rental payment but she’d have nothing left over for food. So she asked the Skyler Ridge complex manager to allow her to make up her April and May payments later in the year.

The response took her aback: a sternly worded letter explaining that a March 17 order by Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly directing financial institutions to suspend legal proceedings did not apply to the corporate manager of the complex.

“We are writing to give you notice, in advance, that we’re not aware of any government order which suspends the payment of rent,” the letter read. “We would encourage you to continue to pay your rent. To the extent that any order or new restrictions are published that delay our enforcement of leases, we will institute such enforcement at the earliest point allowed by law.”

“I’d lost my income through no fault of mine and I wasn’t saying ‘I don’t want to pay my rent,’” White said. “I said, ‘Can we figure out maybe a way for you to work with me on this, like cut my rent in half and I’ll pay the rest later?’”

Skyler Ridge is one of more than a dozen apartment complexes operated in Kansas and Missouri by Peterson Properties Inc., which is based in Merriam. The company sent similar letters to tenants of its other properties, many of those renters hourly workers like White who, owing to the COVID-19 crisis, have lost their jobs or seen their hours sharply curtailed.

While Kelly’s March 17 order didn’t explicitly suspend apartment evictions, a superseding order she issued on March 23 did. That order prohibits landlords from evicting tenants when their failure to pay rent “is due to a financial hardship caused by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Peterson now says it will abide by the later order and not evict tenants who can’t pay rent for COVID-19-related reasons.

“I can say that the company is not pursuing any evictions and they are following the governor’s order,” said James Kessinger, a lawyer for the company.

Kessinger said the company wasn’t trying to evict tenants from its Missouri properties either, even though Gov. Mike Parson has not issued any order halting eviction proceedings.

“The normal day for filing evictions for the Peterson companies was last Thursday and no evictions were filed in either state,” Kessinger said.

Mollie Harmon Moylan, a real estate lawyer with Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, said Kelly’s March 17 order was ambiguous, “so a lot of private commercial companies thought they could proceed with business as usual.”

Kelly’s later order, she said, makes clear that “if you’re someone having some sort of financial hardship as a result of COVID-19, then you cannot be evicted.”

But Kelly’s order doesn’t excuse tenants from making their rental payments. It just means tenants can’t be evicted – at least until the order runs its course through May 1.

“And the order also doesn’t mean that in the future you won’t owe the rent that you were unable to pay,” Harmon said.

Although Parson has not issued any orders suspending tenant evictions in Missouri, on March 19 a Jackson County judge halted eviction proceedings and the forcible removal of Jackson County tenants from their homes.

“It’s a very complex, complex situation,” said Kessinger, Peterson Companies’ lawyer. He said the company had kept its maintenance crew and management staff on the payroll and is still providing full services to all its tenants.

Kessinger said Peterson is following the advice given by HCCI, a Kansas nonprofit that offers credit counseling to consumers and issued guidelines recently for landlords and tenants.

The guidelines encourage landlords to negotiate payment plans with tenants but also says Gov. Kelly’s order does not apply to judicial eviction proceedings filed before the order took effect on March 23.

And, it says, the order “does NOT prevent evictions” for nonpayment of rent “not due to a financial hardship resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

As a reporter covering breaking news and legal affairs, I want to demystify often-complex legal issues in order to expose the visible and invisible ways they affect people’s lives. I cover issues of justice and equity, and seek to ensure that significant and often under-covered developments get the attention they deserve so that KCUR listeners and readers are equipped with the knowledge they need to act as better informed citizens. Email me at dan@kcur.org.
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