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Renters say housing co-ops could be an answer to Kansas City’s affordable housing problem

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Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
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KCUR 89.3
Mayor Quinton Lucas speaks with KC Tenants leaders at a town hall event Thursday night.

A model where renters would own and govern the buildings they live in would create community accountability and lower the barrier for low-income tenants to achieve stable housing, according to organizers.

More than 200 renters from around Kansas City gathered Thursday night to discuss new approaches for creating stable, affordable housing for low-income tenants. Citywide tenant union KC Tenants hosted the town hall to rally support for social housing, which they define as housing that puts people over profits.

Social housing is a concept that has had some success in European countries, but has largely been considered too radical in the United States, where it’s often associated with public housing reserved for low-income residents in high poverty areas. The idea has gained attention recently, due in part to the presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Tenants leaders said one way to combat unfair housing is to create housing co-ops, where tenants own and govern the buildings they live in. They’re proposing the properties be built on land the city already owns through the Kansas City Land Bank. Brandon Henderson, a KC Tenants leader who grew up in unstable housing, said the city could afford social housing by redirecting money from other departments.

“Our city spends almost a quarter billion dollars alone on the police, and you’re gonna tell me that you all cannot afford to house every person in this city,” said Henderson. “You’re lying.”

Henderson said co-op style housing with a tight knit community is what he dreamed of as a kid.

Jenay Manley, another KC Tenants leader, said social housing would have been life changing for her, too. Manley said she was forced to stay in an abusive relationship to house herself and her children because she couldn’t afford her own place.

“Single moms wouldn’t have to choose to be with abusers,” said Manley. “We would be able to choose to just be moms, to love on our babies. We would be able to have the space to be valued as whole people and enjoy our kids. I don’t want us to struggle and donate plasma to be able to pay the damn bills.”

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas also made an appearance Thursday night. Lucas told attendees he was open to the idea of social housing, but that it would be a slow process.

The KC Tenants rallied at City Hall last month to protest Lucas’ proposed affordable housing trust fund, which they called a “developer slush fund” that did not resemble their own version of a People’s Housing Trust Fund. Their version called for a governing board which gave renters a say in how the money is spent. The legislation that passed did not expressly give tenants a seat at the table, but did include language requiring the city manager to establish an advisory board, with members appointed by the mayor.

Manley said while issues for renters have been magnified by the pandemic, renters have been struggling to maintain secure and affordable housing for decades.

“We had tenants who were constantly living in crisis, who were told the only way safe is to stay home,” said Manley. “Meanwhile, people are being evicted from their homes. Illegal evictions have been happening the whole time the pandemic has happened, and we know that’s because landlords and developers put profits over people’s lives.”

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