Government & Politics

KC tenants, tired of squalor and evictions, push City Council for ‘bill of rights’

A sweeping set of protections for Kansas City renters will be up for consideration by the City Council following an emotional rally and press conference Wednesday.

Dozens of Kansas Citians gathered on the south steps of City Hall to demand that the council pass a tenants bill of rights drafted by KC Tenants, a grassroots group organized to press for improved conditions in rental housing.

Their set of proposals also includes city-funded legal representation for low-income residents facing eviction and a tenant advocacy office at City Hall.

Tonya Bowman, a leader in KC Tenants, dubbed herself part of the “working homeless” and said she’s been evicted again and again.

Bowman said a home where she stayed last year had a severe mouse infestation. At another home, her electricity bill reached $900 for reasons she doesn’t know. It makes it difficult for her to afford a new place.

“I’ve been homeless since February,” Bowman said. “My morale has plummeted. In the shelter, I feel sub-human. It just kills the spirit. And I have a lot of spirit.”

The group has support from Mayor Quinton Lucas, who grew up in poverty. He pledged to support the bill of rights and plans to introduce it to the City Council Thursday.

“I grew up in substandard housing. I know too many people that are still dealing with it,” Lucas said, “and I’m proud of the fact that today what we’re saying is we’re tired of it.”

That said, Lucas predicted a “heck of a debate” over the set of policies in the bill of rights.

KC Tenants proposes barring discrimination against tenants on the basis of “race; color; religion; national origin; sex; disability; marital status; familial status; sexual orientation; gender expression; gender identity; being a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking; source of income; conviction or arrest history; and rental history.”

Several of those protections already exist under municipal law, but others could be challenging to enact.

Earlier this year, a committee chaired by Lucas, who was a councilman at the time, stripped a source of income protection proposal from an ordinance because of push back from landlords. A source of income protection requires landlords to accept housing vouchers or other assistance for rent payments. Taking those funds, often called Section 8, is currently optional for private landlords.

Lucas said it was unfortunate the proposal didn’t make it out of committee.

“I believed in banning source of income discrimination a year ago...I believe in it now.”

The bill of rights would also grant renters the right to disclosures about the condition of the home, a utilities estimate, proper notice and consent before entry by a landlord, accountability for harassment, evictions for cause, limits on security deposits and fees, the right to organize and collectively bargain and protection from retaliation.

KC Tenants members who spoke Wednesday recounted stories of substandard living conditions, evictions and landlord abuses. They say a bill of rights would help.

Tiana Caldwell and her family’s struggles began when she had to choose between paying medical bills and rent when her cancer returned last year.

“I chose to live, and my landlord evicted me,” Caldwell said.

When the family found a new home, sewage came up through the pipes. Since then, they’ve struggled to find suitable housing because of the eviction. Caldwell’s son, AJ, 12, said it’s been hard to see his parents stressed.

“I think the mayor and the City Council should fight for my family,” AJ said. “Look me in the eyes and tell me I don’t deserve this. A bill of rights would change our lives.”

“Recently, I lived in a place where the hot water didn’t even work, the landlord insisted on inspecting my unit without proper notice, I fixed my own toilet and bed bugs crawled all over my belongings,” said Maya Neal, a group leader.

Kansas City wouldn’t be the first to enact a tenants bill of rights. Numerous major metropolitan areas have adopted the idea.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia is considering providing free legal counsel for low-income tenants.

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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.