High rents, threat of eviction push housing to top of issue agenda in KC mayoral race

For a while, it was working out for Virginia Vann.

She moved back from Texas, where she stayed for a year after leaving her husband, to live with her daughter. She eventually found an $8.45-an-hour job cleaning office buildings.

A Google search for cheap housing led her to an income-based $415-a-month apartment just across the Kansas City line in Raytown.

But then the 1999 Lexus she relied on to get to work started wearing out. Repair bills ran as high as $1,600, so she had to use some of the money set aside for rent.

“I just paid what I could with my rent, and then, shoot, sometimes I had to borrow money from my daughter to eat,” said Vann, 63.

At first, the management at her apartment complex was understanding. But car expenses again put Vann behind on rent, and she was evicted in April 2016. She moved in with another daughter and started the search for the next place.

In a city where nearly half of renters are “cost burdened” — spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent — Vann’s story from the economic edge is a common one. Even her income-based rent couldn’t save her from the unexpected, budget-busting car repairs.

It’s one of countless narratives adding new urgency to Kansas City’s debate around affordable housing and protection for tenants vulnerable to eviction. Nearly all of the 11 candidates for mayor have identified it as a top issue in the 2019 election.

With the April 2 primary less than a month off, contenders are trying to show they can lead the way.

City Councilman Quinton Lucas, 3rd District at-large, chairman of the council’s housing committee, has shepherded to passage ordinances creating a yet-to-be-bankrolled Housing Trust Fund and a streamlined building permit process. Councilwoman Jolie Justus, 4th District, championed a measure allowing domestic violence survivors to break their leases without penalty. She has advocated free legal services for neighborhoods and school districts to help families stay in their homes.

Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner, 1st District at-large, has proposed a property tax increase to provide a sustainable flow of cash to the trust fund. Phil Glynn, a Crossroads businessman whose company builds affordable housing, says he’s the only candidate who understands what private markets need to partner with local government.

“I bring that private-sector experience of knowing what local governments can do to help deals close and also having seen what sometimes local governments do to prevent deals from closing,” Glynn told a crowd gathered at a mayoral forum on real estate. “I want to facilitate bringing more units onto the market because this is about supply and demand. Rents won’t come down in Kansas City until we bring thousands of new units onto the market.”

At stake is a selling point that Kansas City has enjoyed for years: a reputation for affordability. But “that’s no longer true,” said Michael Duffy, managing attorney for Legal Aid of Western Missouri.

According to data he presented to the City Council Housing Committee, rental rates in Kansas City rose at double the national average in 2017.

“I don’t think it’s too late in Kansas City,” said Tara Raghuveer, a tenant rights activist, “and I think that means that we have an opportunity — and not just an opportunity but a responsibility — to make a bold intervention now.”

Raghuveer studied evictions in Kansas City while at Harvard and has since moved back to to the area to establish a tenant power organization, which launched on the steps of City Hall earlier this month.

Raghuveer said affordable housing is on the radars of officials in Kansas City, but the voices of tenants impacted by public policy decisions have been missing from those conversations.

On a frigid Monday morning, around 75 Kansas Citians took to the steps of City Hall to demand that officials address affordability and tenant protections.

“I feel defeated, but I also feel ready,” Brandy Granados, a leader in KC Tenants, told the rally Monday. “ I’m ready to write my rights into enforceable law. I am ready to fight.”

‘I’m just stuck here’

When Vann she set out to find a new home, some landlords told her flatly they would not rent to anyone with an eviction on record. She thinks that’s unfair.

“Because people come to situations where they get sick, they can’t work,” Vann said. “There’s a lot of things that come to play when you’re living in a house or renting a house or apartment.”

Eventually, she found a building that would take her as long as she paid off the back rent at her old apartment complex.

Now she’s paying $675 a month near 80th and Campbell streets, where she said she has lived for about a year and a half. Vann is making payments on a new car, but a raise at her full-time job brought her to $12 an hour. After she finishes her 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift for Woodley Building Maintenance, she goes home to rest, then heads back out from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. for another cleaning company.

Crystal Bess has yet to recover from her eviction.

Her problems began in May when water bills started climbing for no apparent reason. While Bess was on vacation in June, she said the water heater broke, channeling water into her basement.

Bess said the landlord was unresponsive.

“Many times he said, ‘Oh, I’m coming over,’ and then never showed up,” said Bess, 33 who says she works up to 55 hours a week at Metro PCS. The high water bills threw her behind on the rent.

Her landlord eventually took her to court, where Bess said she tried to show the judge that he wasn’t fixing the problem. He wouldn’t have it.

With an eviction on file, she’s had to move in with her mom near Linwood Boulevard and Spruce Avenue.

“I’m just stuck here,” she said.

It’s cases like that where Gina Chiala sees the need for attorneys to represent tenants.

Chiala, executive director of Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, goes to the Jackson County Courthouse most Thursdays when judges hear tenant-landlord cases.

She and and her staff started observing court proceedings in the fall of 2017, and it didn’t take long before they decided to intervene. Now, they hand out fliers and try to provide guidance for tenants facing eviction.

“We were so panicked by what we were seeing, which was one tenant after another signing consent judgments, agreeing to their own eviction and basically expediting the process by which they would be evicted without understanding what they were signing, what their rights were, what their options were,” Chiala said.

Chiala believes the city should invest in attorneys to provide free representation for tenants when they go up against a landlord’s lawyer.

It’s not that tenants’ attorneys could win every case. There’s not much defense for tenants who fall behind on rent in an apartment the landlord is caring for adequately. But access to counsel could help some reach settlements to keep evictions off their records and rent flowing in for the landlord.

Several candidates told The Star that they’d like to see more city dollars spent on tenant assistance programs, including Chiala’s and Legal Aid of Western Missouri.

Justus suggested investing in Legal Aid’s “Adopt-A-Neighborhood” Project, which provides legal services to neighborhoods, nonprofits and individuals for issues from property rights to taxes and business incorporation.

“We must continually strive to keep people in their homes,” Justus said. “This stabilizes neighborhoods, reduces vacant and abandoned properties and assists our community by curbing the student mobility that is crippling many schools and families.”

Glynn said he’d like to see the city enforce ordinances that protect residents from bad landlords and that he would support grassroots coalitions organizing for tenants’ rights.

“But the best thing Kansas City can do for working families and senior citizens in rental housing is to grow jobs and increase the supply of housing,” Glynn said. “This market-driven approach will lead to greater supply of housing and greater choice for tenants.”

‘Closed mouths don’t get fed’

Kansas City’s rental market is tightening. A decade ago, the city had a high vacancy rate, but now it’s below the national average. And when rental markets get competitive, prices go up.

Dianne Cleaver is president and CEO of the Urban Neighborhood Initiative, which works to strengthen neighborhoods in the city’s core. She said the tight real estate market means landlords can sell homes at high prices or remodel them and hike rents.

“It’s really hard for people to find decent, solid housing that they can afford,” Cleaver said.

She worried about property taxes going up and pushing out long-time residents of changing neighborhoods. Gentrification can change the cultural fabric of a community.

“And then pretty soon there is a large-scale turnover,” she said.

Lucas suggested the city use its toolbox of economic incentives to help neighborhood associations revitalize their own areas. The first step, he said, was to avoid widespread demolition of existing housing stock.

“Broad-scale demolition is not a housing policy and accelerates displacement of long-time community residents,” Lucas said. “Minor home repair program funding should be expanded...to include moderate and major home repair so that those with fixed income or those with low incomes [are not prevented from] remaining in their community.”

The city funds home repair programs, and the housing trust fund Lucas supports would set aside additional money.

The challenge for the city lies in finding the cash.

Colleen Hernandez, who has worked on affordable housing as a community developer and with Cleaver at UNI, said the true shortage of homes is for those making poverty-level wages. Officials estimate the city needs another 7,000 rental homes for residents earning $15,000 or less.

Hernandez said that’s where the council’s recent efforts have fallen short.

“Nobody is addressing that cohort because it costs money and they don’t have any readily identifiable source,” Hernandez said.

The Council has been grappling with a proposal that would require developers receiving tax incentives to set aside 15 percent of their units to be affordable for those making 70 percent or less of the area median income, which is around $50,000. But Duffy told members the need is for residents making even less.

Councilman Jermaine Reed, 3rd District, is the only other mayoral candidate who told The Star they would support Wagner’s proposal to raise property taxes to fund affordable housing.

“I raised it in order to invite a real conversation as to how important the affordable housing issue is to our City,” Wagner said. “If we want a real solution, we as a community have to be prepared to invest in it.”

Vann said she hadn’t settled on a candidate in the mayor’s race, but she certainly won’t sit it out.

“I’ll definitely vote,” she said. “Heck yeah. I’m a voter.”

She also believes people need to speak up. If they don’t “get out and holler” and let city leaders know what they want and need, they won’t get it, she said.

“They always say closed mouths don’t get fed.”

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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.