The Kansas City Council on Thursday resoundingly passed what advocates are calling a historic resolution, codifying protections for renters.
Mayor Quinton Lucas, who often talks about his lack of stable housing growing up in Kansas City, made affordable housing a flagship issue of his campaign.
“For anyone who has actually ever dealt with any type of situation where they don’t know who they can call, they don’t know who they can rely on, we’re creating an opportunity for folks to have that outlet,” Lucas said.
Lucas, as chair of a special housing committee, oversaw a number of packed and often raucous meetings, largely populated by KC Tenants, a grassroots organization formed in early 2019 to advocate for safe and affordable housing.
KC Tenants co-wrote the bill of rights for renters, which is part of the measure the council approved Thursday.
More protections for renters
The ordinance underscores many existing protections already provided under federal and city law, including barring discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. The measure adds to that list a prohibition on discriminating against victims of domestic violence or sexual assault.
Tara Raghuveer, who co-founded KC Tenants, said while Thursday’s vote was historic, the group was disappointed to see the council change one part of the ordinance that would have banned landlords from discriminating against people who use federal vouchers to pay for housing.
“The way that the housing committee amended that piece sort of negates the idea of banning source of income discrimination and that puts Kansas City behind the national trend,” Raghuveer said.
While the measure said landlords couldn’t discriminate against people for using vouchers, it also said landlords would not be required to participate in the voluntary federal program.
“About 60 cities and 15 states have already banned source of income discrimination, and it's one of the pieces of our package that had the deepest race and class implications, so we will be back for that fight,” Raghuveer said.
Landlords also will be prevented from rejecting a prospective tenant solely because of a past eviction or a criminal history. They would need to consider other factors such as the type of crime.
“We want folks to be given the opportunity to have a conversation, to explain themselves, be heard, and then the property owners still have the discretion as to whether they want to rent to the individual in question,” said Raghuveer.
The ordinance also allows tenants to organize or collectively bargain with a property owner without fear of eviction or retaliation.
Landlords and property managers take issue with a number of the provisions.
Robert Wise, a private attorney who’s represented landlords for 40 years, said the city already has a Healthy Homes measure, giving the Kansas City Health Department authority to inspect the homes of renters who have called in complaints. Wise said the new measure is unfair.
“(The bill) doesn’t say anything about whether landlords have any rights,” he said. “There are two parties to these contracts. I’d like to see something that says the landlord has a right not to have his property torn up.”
Landlords and property managers also oppose provisions that require them to reveal utility bills. They said they often don’t have access to accurate information about utility bills to pass on to renters.
Crystal Vaughn of Meridian Realty and Property Management said she rents to dozens of low-income tenants. She maintains the newly instated measures are not much of an improvement for tenants and unnecessarily burdensome on landlords.
“It’s been good for bringing awareness to the problem of affordable housing,” she said. “But (the ordinance) doesn’t solve the problem tenants face in getting access to affordable housing.”
Rental units will also be required to meet minimum health and safety standards, including working utilities.
Organizers with the tenants' movement see it as a big first step in addressing a long-standing imbalance in power.
“We lose in eviction courts 99 percent of the time,” said Tiana Caldwell, who joined KC Tenants at its inception in the midst of her own eviction crisis. “So they’re checking on us. Who’s watching the landlords?"
Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on twitter @laurazig
Lisa Rodriguez is the afternoon newscaster and covers Kansas City, Missouri, City Hall for KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @larodrig.