In the cold of a Kansas City winter, Fran Marion and her two teenage children wrapped themselves in coats and blankets in their frigid rental home. Marion had repeatedly asked her landlord to fix their broken furnace. When he didn’t respond, Marion deployed the only option she could think of.
She withheld her rent check.
“I just figured that he would have the decency to fix the furnace because I'm sure that he didn't go home to a cold house and I expressed that to him,” Marion says.
Her missed rental payment goaded her landlord into action, but not the one Marion had anticipated.
He filed to evict her. Marion, who had recently moved to Kansas City with her children after spending most of her life in Omaha, would be out in the cold for the next two years.
Her story is a familiar saga in Kansas City. According to a recent study of 18 years of court records, landlords in Jackson County file petitions to evict an average of 42 families per business day. And circuit court judges grant an average of 25 requests per business day.
That means, in any given week, more than 100 families are cast from the relative security of a rental home into a frightening and demeaning limbo.
As Marion quickly found out, an eviction judgment is like a big, scarlet letter in the rental market. Prospective landlords hung up on her when they learned she’d been evicted. When she did manage to lease a property, it turned out to have been condemned by the city.
As she puts it, Marion and her children moved “from pillar to post,” unable to secure a home of their own. They couch-surfed with friends and acquaintances, staying a few months here and a few weeks there.
Someone fired gunshots at a house where they were staying. Marion got held up at gunpoint on her way home from her job at a fast-food restaurant. Both her children had to attend schools where they were unhappy.
"I'd rather go through toothaches and childbirth again,” Marion says of their odyssey, which finally ended a few months ago when they found a landlord willing to rent them an apartment in Northeast Kansas City.
Stories like this one are getting a lot of attention right now, in large part because of research by Tara Raghuveer, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School who studied evictions in Kansas City for her thesis at Harvard University.
Raghuveer’s work became the foundation for the newly minted Kansas City Eviction Project, a collaboration of city leaders, educators and social service advocates.
“Her data and stats were eye opening,” Kansas City Mayor Sly James says. “I think the main thing that stood out was the sheer number of evictions.”
Raghuveer notes that her numbers for Jackson County – about 9,000 eviction filings in an average year – don’t tell the full story.
“The data that we have from the courts I believe to only represent a fraction of the total impact of evictions in the city,” she says. “There are many more evictions that happened informally outside of the courts.”
Concerns about eviction overlap with the ongoing discussion about the educational chaos created when students move in and out of classrooms during the school year.
Some schools in Kansas City Public Schools and other high-poverty districts log mobility rates close to or greater than 100 percent – meaning as many students transfer in and out of their classrooms as the number of students enrolled at the beginning of the school year. The comings and goings add up to extra work for teachers, stress for students and disruptions even for children who don’t move.
“Anything that works to keep kids out of the classroom is a major issue that has to be addressed,” James says. “The economic circumstances of the parent or parents has a huge impact on the stability of the child in school.”
Gina Chiala, executive director of the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, is a regular presence in the Jackson County Courthouse, especially on Thursdays, when five judges there and one in Independence handle the landlord-tenant docket – better known as eviction court.
Very few tenants hire counsel before coming to court, she says. But Chiala, a lawyer, says some evictions could be prevented if tenants had legal representation or even an understanding of the process.
She thinks Fran Marion may have been able to reach a settlement with her landlord because of the defective furnace. But Marion didn’t contest the eviction petition.
“I was uneducated about the law system and I didn't have a lawyer or anything, so I felt that I wouldn't have won,” Marion says. “So why even bother?”
But the consequences of an eviction, especially for families with children, can be devastating, Chiala says.
"It has a terrible impact because the children end up in homeless shelters,” she says. “We know of low-wage workers whose children have ended up in cars and in vans and right out on the streets. But then, secondarily, their schooling is being thrown into total disarray. I think children are permanently traumatized by this.”
Marion’s 16-year-old daughter, Rayvn Marion, transferred from Northeast High School to East High School during the time her family was homeless. Her sophomore year was basically a lost cause, she says. She struggled with some of her classes and didn’t get involved in activities.
“It's hard to get more involved with teachers, students and to get along,” she says.
Partners in the Kansas City Eviction Project are trying to get school districts to share data on student transfers and academic performance. They think that if they can connect the dots between forced moves, missed class time and low student achievement, they can push for policies to keep more kids in their homes and classrooms.
Kansas City Public Schools has agreed to share data. So have Independence, North Kansas City and Fort Osage. But with so many school districts so close together in the metro, the project’s success will hinge on getting everyone on board.
The spotlight on Kansas City’s high eviction numbers has put landlords on the defensive, with some tenants and advocates accusing property owners of purposely running out tenants so they can re-rent units and bank the security deposits.
But Robert Long, who owns or is involved with the management of about 40 rental properties in the south Kansas City neighborhoods around Bannister Road and Blue Ridge Boulevard, says eviction is his worst-case scenario.
“Most landlords I know try really hard to work with the tenant to get the rent,” he says.
The process of evicting a tenant can take two or three months, Long says, and the landlord forfeits income during that period.
“The homes I own, all except for one, have mortgages on them,” he says. “So after I pay the mortgage, the taxes, the insurance, I may only have a couple hundred dollars a month of cash flow left over. So if you take one month's rent away from that, if the rent is $800 a month, that eats up my cash flow.”
Housing affordability crisis
The crux of the problem, Long says, is that many of his tenants can’t consistently afford their rent.
“We're in a housing affordability crisis here in Kansas City,” he says. “People aren't making a living wage to where they can afford to pay their rent and other expenses.”
If Long could prescribe one remedy to reduce evictions, it would be better pay for low-wage workers.
“We're hearing a lot of talk these days about a $15-an-hour minimum wage,” he says. “As a small business owner, when I think about having to pay somebody that kind of money it's a little painful. But when I look at people trying to live off of less than that, it’s a struggle.”
Fran Marion, who works for $10.25 an hour as a trainer at a fast food restaurant, could not agree more. If wages were higher, fewer tenants would have to rely on slum landlords for housing, she says.
“The wages that we make, you have to kind of settle for basically whatever you can get, whatever you can afford.”
James also sees better pay as the best way to reduce evictions, and he’s frustrated that the Missouri General Assembly has banned Kansas City and other cities from setting their own minimum wage levels.
“If you want to get right down to brass tacks, a lot of the evictions are because people can't afford to pay rent,” he says. “One thing that would help tremendously tremendously, in my opinion, is to raise the minimum wage so that people could actually afford to be able to pay.”
But with Kansas City unable to exercise that option, leaders are looking at smaller steps – like helping tenants with emergency rent and utility funds, and legal representation. Some school districts, including Kansas City, Kansas, and Shawnee Mission, are partnering with churches, foundations and other groups to try to keep families from becoming homeless.
Fran Marion says it’s important for tenants to understand they may have options. “Once you get an eviction it’s really hard,” she says.
Even today, two years after she was evicted, Marion has few options for housing. The unit where her family lives is small, in a battered building with a hole in the front door.
“It’s not the greatest, but it’s home,” Marion says.
Rayvn has returned to Northeast High School and is finishing her junior year. She says her family’s more stable circumstances have improved her school life.
“I like to do volleyball, and I also now I decided to do track,” she says. “I have more space and opportunity to do things now.”
Space and opportunity come with a permanent address and a place to call home. But in eviction court, dozens of families continue to lose that lifeline every week.
Barbara Shelly is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.