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Tenants Group Calls Evictions An 'Act Of Violence' And Sues Presiding Jackson County Judge

093020_dm_eviction_carlos moreno
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR
The Jackson County courts had an eviction moratorium in place but it expired at the end of May.

Missouri is one of a handful of states that has not issued a statewide eviction moratorium to prevent tenant evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A local tenants rights group is suing the presiding judge of Jackson County for allowing landlords to file eviction cases in the face of a federal moratorium on tenant evictions.

The lawsuit by KC Tenants alleges that Circuit Judge David M. Byrn issued an administrative order that conflicts with a September directive from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ordering a halt to tenant evictions through the end of the year.

“Since June, thousands of evictions have been filed,” Tara Raghuveer, director of KC Tenants, told KCUR. “And what we know right now is that evictions are an act of violence. They always are, but especially during a global pandemic especially as COVID numbers are spiking across the state of Missouri and here in Kansas City. Evictions will result in basically a death sentence for some people who are at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus.”

Valerie Hartman, a spokeswoman for the court, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The suit, which also names court administrator Mary A. Marquez, says Byrn’s order “is impossible to reconcile” with the CDC’s moratorium “and serves as an obstacle to the full purposes and objectives” of the moratorium.

The CDC moratorium was designed to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. It bars evictions of tenants who submit a declaration confirming they meet income eligibility requirements and are unable to pay their full rent due to income loss or medical expenses, among other conditions.

A tenant timeline

Missouri is one of a handful of states that has not issued a statewide eviction moratorium to prevent tenant evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The suit notes that unemployment in Missouri now stands at 7%, with more than 829,600 unemployment claims filed in the 28 weeks since Gov. Mike Parson declared a state of emergency to combat the pandemic.

In its lawsuit, KC Tenants notes that evictions disproportionately burden tenants of color and particularly Black women. It cites a study by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab finding that Black women renters on average were evicted at twice the rate of white renters in 17 out of 26 states, including Missouri.

“Given these stark race and gender disparities, Black women renters and other tenants of color will suffer the greatest hardship due to the current eviction crisis—worsening the existing racial disparities that have emerged in the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the suit says.

In mid-August, KC Tenants and other groups sent Byrn a public letter demanding a reinstatement of the moratorium. Byrn declined, saying he would do so only if the federal government or the state imposed a moratorium.

It’s not clear why the moratorium issued by the CDC, a part of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, doesn’t qualify.

“The order from the federal government is clear: People should not be put out of their homes during a global pandemic,” Sandra Park, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, said in a statement. “Evictions will disproportionately harm communities of color, and particularly women of color. All residents should have access to safe and stable housing throughout the course of this ongoing public health crisis.”

It's also not the first time Jackson County courts appear to have ignored a federal moratorium on evictions. When the courts refused to halt evictions in May, a federal moratorium banning them was still in effect. That moratorium did not end until July 24.

Appeals have been ignored

In August, various tenants groups asked the chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, George Draper, to intervene and institute a six-month statewide eviction moratorium. That plea went unheeded.

And last week, the ACLU of Missouri, which represents KC Tenants in the case against Byrn, sent a letter to Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas asking him to rescind Byrn’s order.

“We commend your efforts thus far in providing relief to Kansas City residents,” the letter read. “Yet it is critical that you immediately call for the rescission of Administrative Order No. 2020-154 and a halt to eviction proceedings until the 16th Judicial Circuit Court adopts meaningful procedural mechanisms to ensure compliance with the CDC order and tenants’ due process protections.”

Morgan Said, a spokeswoman for Lucas, said he had received the letter and reached out to KC Tenants.

“My understanding is we do not have the jurisdictional authority to rescind the administrative order, but what we do have is a degree of political power,” she said. “So we’re discussing internally right now how to best execute that.”

Pressure on the court has been building since July 30, when more than 100 tenants’ rights activists staged an act of civil disobedience at the courthouse, disrupting both in-person and teleconference eviction proceedings. Two people were arrested. At the time, the activists claimed that Jackson County landlords had filed 1,181 eviction proceedings since March and that another 1,600 were in the works.

Since then, the court has imposed measures to prevent further disruptions, including barring Legal Aid lawyers from making themselves available on the seventh floor, where landlord-tenant cases are heard, to tenants needing counsel. The lawyers are now confined to the first floor of the courthouse.

Byrn has been a Jackson County judge since 2008, when he was appointed by then-Gov. Matt Blunt. Before that he was in private practice for 27 years, focusing on business, real estate, construction and commercial litigation, according to his biography on the court’s website.

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