Kansas City renters win right to an attorney

By Gary Thomas

On December 20, a coalition consisting of KC Tenants, the Missouri Workers Center and the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom won the right to legal representation for renters facing eviction. Signed into law by Mayor Lucas and championed by councilwoman Andrea Bough, the law will provide attorneys to all who are facing eviction at no cost to the tenant and with no means testing. Kansas City has become the thirteenth city to adopt this measure.

Right to counsel was originally included in the historic Tenants Bill of Rights passed by the City Council in December of 2019, unfortunately, the provision was cut from the final bill. The Tenants Bill of Rights made history in Kansas City with a number of working-class provisions included, but not limited to, the right to safe accessible housing, the right to privacy and the right to organize tenants’ unions and bargain for fair rent and functional equipment. While the right to counsel was left out, it didn’t stop the grassroots organizations from rallying around renters during their most trying times, eviction court.

Forty-six percent of Kansas City residents are renters, and half of them are cost burdened. Cost burdened means that a renter spends more than 30% of their income on rent. These cost burdened renters include members of UAW Locals 31, 710 and 249 in the Kansas City metro area, and hundreds of our temporary and full-time members are renters. Many more struggle to pay rent, especially as a pandemic and part shortages loom.

In January of 2021, KC Tenants declared the month as Zero Eviction January. Just months before, President Donald Trump issued an eviction moratorium. This moratorium was extended several times but was ignored by Kansas City eviction court judges. Tenants were forced to go to court during a pandemic, which we’re still currently in the middle of, and fight for their homes as they fought for their jobs, for unemployment, medical costs and a myriad of other issues that were exacerbated by Covid 19. To add more inhumanity into an already inhumane process, the court added the telephone to the process.

Now those facing eviction were forced to call in to eviction court and be evicted over the phone. Those with means and access to lawyers had an immediate advantage in this situation. Tenants had no way of presenting evidence on their behalf or even the ability to plead their case. “To win this transformative policy, the people of Kansas City had to come together as a collective” said Sabrina Davis, Leader with KC Tenants.

After stopping hundreds of evictions during the month of January the KC Tenants regrouped and decided that right to counsel needed to be won for Kansas City’s working class. On average fewer than 10% of renters have access to a lawyer when fighting an eviction, compared to 90% of landlords who have access to a lawyer. This disparity in representation means that the renter is evicted nearly 100% of the time. Most of those evicted are working class minority members of our community.

The Missouri workers center grew out of the organization of Standup KC and the Fight for 15 movement. For nearly a decade Standup KC has been fighting fast-food corporations in Kansas City for fair pay and unionization, leading many strikes, sit ins, marches and signature drives. Standup KC has been successful in helping change the narrative around issues our service industry siblings face. Using collective actions such as camping out in front of Kansas City, Missouri city hall to win 15 dollars an hour for city employees, shutting down fast food restaurants across the metro, lobbying State and federal leaders to increase the minimum wage. Stand Up KC has shown it understands that Missouri workers deserve more.

“This victory shows the power that workers have when we come together” said Terrence Wise, a leader of Stand Up KC.

The Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom may sound familiar. This is because their name directly references Rev Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic march on Washington, D.C. The official title of that march was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was the very same action where Rev Dr. King made his famous “I have a dream” speech. A speech that was heard by all in attendance thanks to a sizable donation from the UAW, but I digress. The Heartland center provides legal services to Kansas City residents who normally wouldn’t be able to afford counsel. This has saved countless citizens, even autoworkers, from losing their homes due to sickness, injury or interruption of employment. A study from Hennepin County in Minnesota found that 96% of tenants with full representation won or settled their cases whereas two-thirds of tenants without counsel lost their homes.

“Don’t let anyone tell you this policy is bad for landlords,” said Gina Chiala, director of the Heartland Center. “Having attorneys represent parties in serious matters like this injects civility, calm, and professionalism into a process that is chaotic and ugly for everyone.”

Several UAW members were on hand to witness the historic passage of this ordinance. Many have helped block evictions both in person and over the phone. Member to Member liaison Austin Mcfarland said “The UAW has, historically, organized across all lines. It understood that politics driven by greed isn’t as sustainable. The only way for the American dream to succeed is politics driven by working class solidarity and power. UAW Local 249 takes this lesson to heart.” The UAW has partnered with all these great organizations for years and each partnership has led working class power in their own right.