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More Than 50 Kansas City Renters Unionize Over Complaints Of Black Mold And Cockroaches

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Five-year-resident of Newport Apartments Joy Brungardt walks into her unit Wednesday which is one of several properties listed as owned by Matthew McGee or Alex Schifman in Kansas City. Brungardt says there are several issues and problems that have gone unrepaired or unaddressed within the complex but she doesn't think McGee is a "cold heartless landlord."

Housing activists say the landlords “preyed on” tenants that couldn't afford to live elsewhere.

A group of 53 tenants has unionized to demand better housing conditions from their Kansas City landlords.

The group said that Matt McGee and Alex Schifman have a history of neglecting more than 100 units in Manheim Park and other neighborhoods east of Troost Avenue. Schifman said he only owns five of the units listed in the complaint, but KC Tenants claims he manages rental units owned by McGee.

The McGee/Schifman Tenant Union, organized by activist group KC Tenants, claims that many current tenants of these properties live in apartments with pests, black mold, broken appliances, leaks and more.

“I've been in this house since 2018, and it's kind of like almost everything you can imagine going wrong,” said Gabe Coppage, a MSTU leader.

Coppage said he knew from his first viewing that conditions were poor at his Manheim Park residence. But with a tight budget, he said he and his roommate had to “take whatever we could get.”

In the last three years, Coppage said he’s faced a number of issues, including sewage backup, water leaks and a raccoon infestation in his attic.

But Coppage said without a clear protocol on how to submit work orders, it was a challenge to get his complaints addressed. He said his attempts to contact McGee directly would often get no response.

He said when maintenance did come, it offered “Band-Aid solutions” to repairs, like painting over water damage. After more work orders went unanswered, Coppage said he gave up hope.

“After years of just nothing happening, it kind of just made me put my head down and think that this is my fault. Like this is all I can afford, like this is all I deserve,” Coppage said.

Coppage was far from the only tenant facing similar challenges when trying to contact McGee for maintenance and repairs.

Evan Barclay, a former tenant at a McGee-owned property at 3604 Paseo Blvd., said he experienced a “multiple-year saga” in seeking repairs for his bathroom ceiling.

Barclay said he emailed maintenance for six months about his leaking ceiling but never received a response back. He contacted McGee directly when the ceiling eventually collapsed in. The repairmen fixed the leak but failed to return to patch the ceiling holes for more than a year.

Barclay said he also faced a roach infestation and unruly neighbors that McGee has failed to properly address. After talking to other tenants, he also discovered his situation was far from unique.

“Everyone's having these problems; everyone has bugs. No one wants these people here. Everyone's called Matt (McGee). Matt hasn't done anything,” Barclay said.

Barclay said he ultimately decided to move out of the property in June because of the conditions. He said he still wants to advocate for current residents.

“It just makes me sad to see, like, people that don't have a lot of money get preyed on like this,” Barclay said. "He rents out these properties for cheap, and I think he knows that…. I think it's just disgusting."

The union said it is pushing for improved conditions for renters and against the displacement of several of its leaders.

Coppage said last month he received a notice to vacate his residence by the end of July. He said he was told by the property’s new management that they had advised the owner to sell the home.

“They're concerned about their profits and their bottom line. It's not profitable for them to maintain this house for tenants and keep it up to code,” Coppage said.

The McGee/Schifman Tenant Union hopes to address all of these issues with their list of demands that includes a 24-hour maintenance line, yearly safety inspections, working amenities in all complexes, and rent relief and backpay for people living in hazardous conditions.

The group said it invited McGee and his associates to negotiate with the union as soon as possible.

Coppage said he hopes that a meeting with McGee and Schifman will give him and other tenants an “equal seat at the table.”

“We're the ones paying the rent. We're the ones paying the mortgages on these houses. We're paying for his bills and his mansion that he lives in, so all we're asking for is just to be treated as human beings,” Coppage said.

Other tenants also supported the move to hold McGee accountable.

"I don't think Matt McGee is a cold heartless landlord. I think he does care for his tenants, but these issues have been around for a long time and are persistent and haven't been addressed. And that's a problem," said Joy Brungardt, a five-year-resident of Newport Apartments.

MSTU said in a statement that it is ready to escalate if their demands are not met.

Schifman said he hadn’t received service or maintenance requests recently from the five units he owns and that one of the renters was around six months behind on rent. He said another person who signed the unions’ demands did not live at the listed address. He did not respond to the union’s call for a meeting.

McGee did not respond to a request for comment.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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