Kansas City's most prominent renters rights group was set to gather Wednesday on the south steps of City Hall to rally support for a newly drafted tenant bill of rights package.
The measure would reinforce and expand protections for low-income renters in Kansas City, Missouri, and would create a tenant advocate's office with authority to investigate suspect property owners and revoke landlord permits.
"Property owners in this country are disproportionately prioritized by policy," said Tara Raghuveer, director of the advocacy organization KC Tenants, which is behind the suite of proposals. "We see this as an evening of the scales and the balance of power in Kansas City."
A version of the package is scheduled to be introduced at the Kansas City Council on Thursday. Though the measure is likely to face significant opposition from some landlords, Raghuveer was optimistic that her group's months of hard work would pay off.
"We organized in the spring to get the new City Council and mayor committed to this idea," she said. "We think we've got the votes."
Raghuveer said Missouri is one of the worst states in the country for renters. Raghuveer, who studied sociology and urban studies at Harvard, analyzed 18 years of eviction filings in Jackson County as part of the Kansas City Eviction Project.
Members of KC Tenants gather on Saturdays at the Service Employees International Union building near 45th Street and The Paseo to organize, strategize and commiserate.
"We hear it every weekend at our meetings, every door that we knock (on), every conversation that we have at events in town," she said, adding that discriminatory landlords, unfair fees, evictions and the like are hurting renters over and over again.
Now, Raghuveer said, "We've actually practiced translating that private pain into public power."
The bill of rights package
The proposed ordinance is three-pronged, according to a recent executive summary. It affirms and expands existing tenant protections that Raghuveer said are poorly enforced; directs the city council to fund a new tenant advocate division at $1 million a year; and establishes a right to counsel and mediation for people who make less than 200% of the federal poverty level, and asks the city manager's office to pay their attorney fees, estimated at $650,000 a year.
"What I know from my research on evictions is that 99.8% of the time, if an eviction case makes it to court, the landlord wins, and part of that story is about who's represented. Eighty-four percent of the time the landlord is represented and, like, 2% of the time the tenants represented," Raghuveer said. "It's not cheap ... (but) this really is a drop in the bucket to ensure that there's actual justice in those courts."
The tenant advocate's office would have the authority to investigate tenant claims, enforce the new ordinance and, critically, revoke landlord permits if they violate those rights.
"Currently our enforcement mechanisms are really limited to fines and, frankly, big corporate landlords don't care about fines," Raghuveer said. "A thousand-dollar fine means nothing and they often don't even pay them."
The office of the tenant advocate would also be charged with educating tenants about the new rules.
The intended effect
It's a set of tools would have helped Tiana Caldwell out when she was experiencing eviction, substandard living conditions and homelessness after she fell behind while sick with cancer.
"It's not going to change the system overnight, you know, that's not what we're looking at," Caldwell said. "But it does give some immediate relief to renters all over the city."
Caldwell, who is now a tenant leader with KC Tenants, said she knows many people with stories like her own: people who can't find places to live because of prior evictions or convictions, disabilities or the way they express their gender. For them, she said, relief can't come soon enough.
"We're trying to revolutionize the way policy is made, you know, with the people who are actually impacted at the table," she said.
The effect, Raghuveer said, would be historic. "Our aim is to make Kansas City the best place to be a tenant in the country," she said.