‘I am ready to fight.’ KC evictees push for tenant bill of rights, affordable housing

In the biting near-zero cold Monday morning, about 75 area residents stood on the steps of City Hall and demanded a response to the looming affordable housing crisis in Kansas City.

“It’s cold outside, but you know what? Our people are getting evicted in the cold,” said Diane Charity, a grassroots leader in the newly launched KC Tenants organization. “Our people live homeless in the cold. Our people go without heat in the cold. So we’re out here, and we will stand and state our piece.”

Monday morning was the inaugural press conference and rally for KC Tenants, a group founded by Tara Raghuveer, a Harvard grad who began her work on housing policy with research into evictions in Kansas City. The grassroots group will advocate for Kansas City tenants’ rights and push for more livable, stable and affordable housing.

“If we don’t make a massive public investment in housing, people like me won’t be able to live here anymore,” said Tiana Caldwell, a leader in the group and two-time ovarian cancer survivor. “More and more people will fall into homelessness, and more kids, like my AJ, will be impacted by this and carry the scars with them forever.”

The group released its housing policy platform and demanded a response from the 11 candidates running for mayor. The platform asks candidates to refuse donations from real estate developers and industry executives, a prolific class of donors in municipal elections.

The group also calls for various tenant protections, including:

A “ban the box” policy that would bar landlords from asking prospective tenants about their criminal history;

Opportunities for tenants to scrub evictions from their records;

An emergency fund to help tenants who fall behind on rent avoid eviction and a moratorium on evicting residents during severe weather;

A tenant bill of rights giving residents the right to decent housing, organization, relocation assistance for forced moves, right to counsel in landlord-tenant court, protection from retaliation and more.

Both Caldwell and her husband, Derrick Caldwell, work, but her family is homeless.

It’s been hard to find a new place to live since last spring, when they were evicted from their home. Caldwell said they fell behind on their rent after she was diagnosed for the second time with ovarian cancer. Their landlord was understanding at first, she said, but they were eventually evicted.

When they finally found a rental and tried to take showers on the first night, sewage came up through the pipes. After struggling to get their landlord to address it, the city’s health department told them the home wasn’t habitable.

Now they’re paying between $300 and $500 per week to live in a hotel. Sometimes they stay with Derrick’s family.

Caldwell said the $75 million City Council members want to find to fund affordable housing is a good start.

“But it’s not going to meet the needs of this city into the future,” she said. “We need housing for people like me, with recent evictions but nowhere to go.”

It’s not just affordability. The group also wants to see stricter governance of landlords to prevent abuses.

Brandy Granados, another grassroots leader, said her heater exploded in November and her landlord didn’t fix it until January.

Her landlord tried to evict her, she said, but she won because the judge ruled the landlord wasn’t providing a habitable home. But she said he’s trying to force her out again.

“I feel defeated,” she said.

The crowd behind her responded, “That ain’t right.”

Granados went on: “I feel defeated, but I also feel ready. I’m ready to write my rights into enforceable law. I am ready to fight.”

Preserving and creating affordable housing was already a key mayoral election issue, but the launch of KC Tenants adds the voices of Kansas Citians who are feeling the squeeze of rising rents.

“We, the tenants, are the closest to the problem and, therefore, the closest to the solution,” Charity said. “We are the experts. We are living this stuff every day.”

Councilman Quinton Lucas, who chairs the Housing Committee and is running for mayor, said in a phone interview the creation of a tenant advocacy group in Kansas City was “long overdue.”

“I think we hear from developers often,” Lucas said. “We hear from the real estate industry often. Economic development groups ... and so I think this is important and impactful for Kansas City.”

Lucas said he appreciated that the group wanted to go beyond the $75 million he has suggested for a Housing Trust Fund. He supported, in theory, more protections for tenants but wanted to study the specific proposals and the way they would interact with state law.

And he said he would be willing to discuss a ban on developer money in municipal elections.

Fellow mayoral candidate Phil Glynn’s company, Travois, builds affordable housing in Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian communities. Building strong neighborhoods has been one of Glynn’s major talking points on the campaign trail.

Glynn said he was at the launch Monday and believed in following the lead of grassroots groups. He vowed in a later phone interview to read over the platform and issue a response.

Whatever the city does about affordable housing, Glynn said it was important to keep the end goal — that residents pay no more than one-third of their income in rent — in mind.

“We need to build a housing strategy around that, and no matter what, it’s going to take massive private investment,” Glynn said.

Asked about the proposed ban on developer cash, Glynn said he thought it was time to look at reforming campaign finance in municipal elections across the board. He said his campaign donations have come from a large base and include small-dollar donors.

“All I can tell you is my campaign is a grassroots campaign of people who share my values and vision for Kansas City, not people who are looking to get something out of it,” he said.

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Allison Kite reports on City Hall and local politics for The Star. She joined the paper in February 2018 and covered Midterm election races on both sides of the state line. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism with minors in economics and public policy from the University of Kansas.