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Kansas City tenants facing eviction would be guaranteed legal help under new ordinance

Gina Chiala, an attorney for Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, talks at a podium backed by many people carrying signs supporting the legal support for tenants.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Gina Chiala, the executive director and lead attorney at the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, talks in support of the Tenants' Right to Counsel ordinance on Wednesday morning at a rally on the steps of City Hall.

Only about 3% of Kansas City tenants receive legal representation in eviction court. KC Tenants and other housing rights groups have proposed a Tenants' Right to Counsel, which would provide that help free through the city.

In Kansas City, fewer than 3% of eviction hearings include legal representation for tenants. A new ordinance introduced by a City Council member would provide free legal counseling to people in conflicts with landlords.

“Having a lawyer means the difference for a tenant between being housed and being homeless,” said Gina Chiala, the executive director and lead attorney at the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, at a rally Wednesday in front of City Hall.

“Without a lawyer, they are 99% likely to be evicted and end up on the street,” Chiala said.

The Heartland Center, along with the housing rights group KC Tenants, is one of the Kansas City organizations backing the “Tenants’ Right To Counsel," introduced by Council member Andrea Bough.

“This ordinance is about housing stability and ensuring that individuals who are being deprived of a basic human right receive legal representation,” Bough says.

The city does fund some legal aid for tenants through the Heartland Center, but Bough said the pandemic highlighted the need for additional representation in eviction court.

“When you’re about to lose your home, you’re in a desperate situation anyway,” Bough said. “And you often don’t have access to legal representation because of the cost. And it puts you at a disadvantage.”

By law, landlords are required to have legal representation in court. But Chiala said during the pandemic, she and other lawyers from the Heartland Center attended Kansas City’s eviction court and saw tenants without attorneys being evicted en masse.

Currently there are just 10 lawyers in Kansas City — who work at the Heartland Center, Legal Aid of Western Missouri, and UMKC — available to represent tenants, Chiala said.

“We need to make sure the playing field is level,” Bough said.

Should the ordinance pass, Chiala said that Kansas City will need up to 18 attorneys to capably handle the caseload. That calculation is based on the 8,000 evictions filed annually in Kansas City.

A man in a red sweatshirt, Terrence Wise, talks at a podium while a man behind him holds a sign reading "No More Convictions" at a rally on the steps of City Hall on Wednesday in Kansas City.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Terrence Wise, a representative of Stand Up KC and the Missouri Workers Center, tells his eviction story during a rally on the steps of City Hall in Kansas City on Wednesday.

Chiala estimates the program would require around $2.5 million annually to operate. KC Tenants say the first two years would be paid for through federal money included in the American Rescue Act, covering city staffing, outreach to tenants, training for lawyers and the cost of legal representation.

After two years, the city would be required to find a recurring, non-discretionary source of funding.

Terrence Wise, a representative of Stand Up KC and the Missouri Workers Center, said the ordinance is not meant to harm landlords.

“It opens up an avenue for civility between landlord and tenant,” Wise said. “I know the landlord has to pay rent too. He has a family to feed. We want it to be an equal and just process. And with this ordinance moving forward, hopefully folks next week don’t have to go in there alone.”

Wise said the ordinance would help people who don’t have any idea what they’re facing when they go into a court proceeding.

“There are many in the courtroom today alone just going to be sentenced,” he said. “That shouldn’t be the way.”

Wise said that available federal funds could go a long way to keeping people in their homes.

“The peoples’ money could be used to help the people,” he said.

The ordinance is scheduled to be reviewed in the Housing Committee or Neighborhood Planning and Development on Wednesday, Dec. 8. One of those committees would make edits or suggestions to the ordinance before sending it to the full council.

If passed, Bough said the earliest the ordinance could go into effect would be June 1, 2022.

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