Every business day, an average of 42 eviction cases are filed in Jackson County, and every one of those can devastate a family and cause chronic homelessness, health problems and worse educational outcomes for the kids involved.
Those are just the cases that wind up in court, with who knows how many more Kansas City tenants forced out by the kind of landlords who unashamedly told housing researcher Tara Raghuveer that instead of going to all of that trouble, they just take the doors off the homes of the renters they want out. Or turn off the heat, or show them that they’re packing heat.
One measure of the problem, though, was the standing-room only crowd that turned out for a discussion of local evictions at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza Branch last week. After the crowd booed one landlord who said people get evicted because they’d rather have 72-inch televisions than pay their rent, and another who said he was trying to be like a good parent who treats all his kids alike, the moderator, KCPT’s Nick Haines, joked that the event was turning into an episode of reality TV.
But for those affected personally, like Terrence Wise, who told the crowd about coming home from his job at Pizza Hut one night to find all of his three daughters’ belongings out on the lawn in the rain, the reality isn’t a joke. And if you live in Kansas City, where an astonishing 47 percent of all residents are renters — the national average is 32 percent — then you are affected personally. Housing insecurity has so many economic and social costs, for instance by interrupting school attendance, which hurts not only individual students but funding for the whole district.
One of the most disheartening aspects of the 17 years’ worth of cases that Raghuveer has studied is how boring the data is, she says, with the thousands of Kansas City evictions that happen every single year holding steady no matter what the economy is doing. For that to change, a city that has been shrinking its affordable housing stock by investing in demolition is going to have to invest in solutions. Despite the persistent redlining and powerful landlord and developer lobbies. And with one hand tied behind its back, since Missouri lawmakers have taken a number of tools used elsewhere off the table, including rent control. They are also trying to limit the ability of cities to regulate rentals.
A landlord on the library panel, Chuck Schmitz, said evictions are disastrous for owners, too. For most, they probably are, even if those who regularly move people in and out of dilapidated properties do seem to see eviction as a business model.
One woman from the mortgage industry said the obvious solution is the same kind of regulation her business imposes, which would keep renters from getting in over their heads. But where are all the decent units that low-income workers can afford? Dan Kelly, who represents landlords in eviction cases, said that in the cities where “they love tenants” and have robust inspections and other protections, “there’s just one problem; you can’t afford to live in any of those cities. Be careful what you wish for.”
It will take a lot more than wishing to solve a crisis that’s both a cause and consequence of poverty. And there’s no danger of proceeding other than carefully in a city where an attempt to set up a real inspection program didn’t get out of committee at the City Council last year. Housing advocates are gathering petitions to put it on the August ballot.
We’ve written before that Mayor Sly James ought to make the tangle of housing issues that disproportionately hurt African Americans and the city’s East Side a major focus of his last year in office. And voters ought to force every one of the candidates angling to succeed James to explain how he or she would address the lack of affordable housing. One of the most engaged is Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner, who wants to create some kind of “Bill of Renters’ Rights,” expand a loan pool for rehabilitating properties and explore how the city’s Legal Aid contract might be amended to provide counsel for tenants facing eviction.