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Kansas City will help pay rent so low-income residents can stay in Northeast apartments

 Artemio (L) and Filomena (R) Barrera could not afford to move anywhere else when they got a notice to vacate. Artemio is on dialysis and is happy they can stay in their apartment so he can focus on a hopeful kidney transplant.
Tara Raghuveer
KC Tenants
Artemio (L) and Filomena (R) Barrera could not afford to move anywhere else when they got a notice to vacate. Artemio is on dialysis and is happy they can stay in their apartment so he can focus on a hopeful kidney transplant.

Residents at the Gladstone Court apartment in the Historic Northeast were still recovering from an electrical fire that left them without heat for three days when they received lease non-renewal notices from their new landlord. After organizing with citywide tenant union KC Tenants, they’re able to stay in their homes with affordable rents.

Over the weekend, tenants living in an apartment building in Kansas City's Historic Northeast neighborhood got news they’d been anxiously awaiting. After more than a month of negotiation and years of living in uninhabitable conditions, they reached a deal with their new landlord to stay in their homes at affordable rents while the owner fixes up the property.

“The tenants in this property can stay in their longtime homes,” said Tara Raghuveer, founding director of KC Tenants. “They can stay connected to their community. It's more than just the units that they're renting. It's also their connections to one another.”

Many tenants of the Gladstone Court Apartments on the 100 block of North Lawn Avenue are refugees and immigrants on fixed incomes.

They were without heat in freezing temperatures in January after an electrical fire knocked out the building’s utilities. For months, residents had complained that many windows to units were broken, there were holes in tenants’ ceilings, appliances didn’t work, and cockroaches, mice and other pests plague the property.

When the tenants found out that previous owners, Kansas City-based hedge fund FTW Investments, sold the building to Wiser KC LLC shortly after the fire, they were hopeful things would begin to change for the better.

Instead, the New Jersey-based company owned by Eli Rosenblatt gave tenants 30-day notices that their leases wouldn’t be renewed. Residents had the option to rent $1,000-a-month units — more than double what they were paying — which would be the market rate for the units after the extensive repairs. The residents, who had been working with KC Tenants, fought to stay in their homes without a rent increase.

“Right now we are a little better off. It's a joy that we'll get to stay here thanks to all of those who supported us or who are still supporting us,” said Artemio Barrera, who’s lived in the building for eight years. "When this contract is up, we'll see what happens. We'll continue to live here like from the beginning of all this. We'll continue to live here, we won't go, and we'll stay here."

A brick apartment building has boarded up windows and signs posted on the door reading no trespassing.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
After being threatened with 30-day notices to vacate, tenants have negotiated a deal to stay in their homes at an affordable rent while their new landlord fixes up the property.

After the notices went out, Barrera and his wife, Filomena, who works for a hospital laundry company, tried to find a new place to live. But Barrera has been on dialysis for both of his kidneys for four years and is unable to work. With only Filomena’s income, the couple could not afford the $1,200 rents they were seeing elsewhere.

“Moving is just a lot harder,” Barrera said. “Paying new or different rent and going through the process of paying a new deposit, it's just more complicated and more money. But then there's also the fact that I rely on rides to get to my doctor's appointments. So anytime there is a change of address, that would also make accessing my doctor's appointments much harder.”

More than 500 people signed a petition for Wiser LLC to allow the residents to stay in their homes without a rent increase and to fix the unlivable conditions. KC Tenants said Rosenblatt agreed to negotiate down to $800 a month, but that was still too high for the low-income residents.

KCUR was unable to reach Rosenblatt for comment.

Kansas City Council members Eric Bunch, Andrea Bough and Kevin O’Neill met with tenants and walked through the property on April 11, and gave their support to the residents.

After more than a month of calls with Rosenblatt, meetings with the city and rallies in support of the tenants, Rosenblatt agreed to a two-year deal that gives tenants year-to-year leases that automatically renew with a monthly, subsidized rent of $400.

Through its rental assistance program, Kansas City has agreed to subsidize the rent of the remaining eight households and pay $450 a month per family.

Kansas City Manager Brian Platt said this is the first time the city has subsidized housing in this way.

“This is an example of us solving problems in creative, innovative ways,” Platt said. “We didn't quite have a solution right off the bat here, but we did know that we needed to act and partner with both KC Tenants and the property owner directly to make sure that we could prevent some evictions here and keep people in their homes. It's absolutely a model for future problem-solving.”

Raghuveer said the agreement sets a precedent for ways the city can get involved to protect residents like those at the North Lawn apartments.

“The city intervening in this way, in a way that's proactive, lays the groundwork for what we'd like to see from city policy moving forward,” Raghuveer said, “which is policy that puts people over profit, that puts people over property, that proactively and systematically ensures the stability of our communities as opposed to reacting to emergencies when they occur.”

As part of the agreement, the landlord cannot raise the rent during the lease term and cannot evict tenants during their lease unless under extenuating circumstances. In those cases, Wiser LLC must notify KC Tenants and the city.

While the building’s owners execute extensive repairs, each tenant will be placed in a comparable unit on the same property or across the street at 135 North Lawn Avenue. All repairs must be done by union contractors and all communications must be translated or interpreted so the tenants — many of whom speak Spanish or Burmese — can understand.

A man and woman sit on a bed with tropical flower sheets. Behind them are pillows and comforters.
Tara Raghuveer
KC Tenants
Ka Led is blind and bedridden and his wife, Kadiza, has chronic respiratory issues. Unable to work, they feared they'd be on the street if they couldn't stay in their apartment at their current rent.

Platt said this agreement could be a template for future policy making.

“I've had personally very productive conversations with Eli and his team, and he's been supportive of trying to find a creative solution here and to do the right thing,” Platt said. “We've also talked a lot about future plans for additional affordable housing and rehabilitation of blighted properties in other parts of the city.”

Barrera said he’s excited to live closer to his neighbors in the nearly 50-unit complex. Only eight households — more than 30 people in total — still live in the large building. Barrera said having “all of the tenants who have been organizing” living closer to one another is a huge improvement.

“Where we live now, it's just very empty and kind of lonely,” Barrera says. “A lot of people who don't live here get inside the building and sometimes they come inside and steal things or sometimes there's theft out in the street. So all of us being moved together, and being able to take care of one another among ourselves is just going to be better.”

A Naing drives a taxi and is the sole provider for his parents, Ka Led and Kadiza, who are both sick and unable to work. Raghuveer said Kadiza was preparing to live on the streets if the family was displaced from the North Lawn property because they had no other options they could afford.

Raghuveer said taking care of North Lawn residents stabilizes the neighborhood and makes the whole city better. She said she could see the relief in each of the remaining residents — including Ka Led, Kadiza, and A Niang — when they found out they were able to stay. She also said they’re “feeling powerful” after organizing together and getting their demands met.

“They were in shock,” Raghuveer said. “I think it's going take a second for it to settle in that they actually don't need to start planning to be out on the streets. Kadiza just had the biggest smile on her face. She's been really excited by and energized by the organizing. She's someone who's really connected to her neighbors as it is. She sees what's possible now that she's kind of channeled the power with her neighbors.”

For Barrera, being able to stay in his home of eight years at an affordable rent, while Wiser LLC improves the living conditions, means he can focus on his healing. Last week, he found out he’s on the waiting list for new kidneys.

“If I'm able to get new kidneys, I can move with all of my family wherever I want and they won't be able to tell me to just leave anymore, or be in a certain apartment,” Barrera says. “I will be able to work. I can go wherever I want, I won't be held down by anything and I can move forward.”

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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