Kansas City tenant rights group finally gives renters a voice. Will City Hall listen?

Is affordable housing a bigger issue in Kansas City than the debate surrounding the new airport terminal? If not, it should be, says the founder of a new grassroots organization dedicated to tenant rights.

And the group, KC Tenants, has a legitimate and urgent argument for more affordable housing in the city. Founder Tara Raghuveer is a Harvard grad who has done extensive research into evictions in Kansas City.

The group’s calls for needed protections, including an emergency fund to help renters avoid evictions and a tenant bill of rights, should help steer the community conversation about these issues and ensure that tenants have access to safe, affordable and livable housing.

Last year’s passage of Kansas City’s Healthy Home initiative, which enables health inspectors to investigate complaints of poor conditions in rental housing, was a step in the right direction. But much more work remains, and city officials can longer afford to take a wait-and-see approach to some of the issues raised by the group in its people’s housing platform.

“If we wait another four years, Kansas City may well have been fully bought and sold by out-of-state investors and big downtown developers, and our folks won’t be here anymore,” Raghuveer said. “Period.”

It’s inspiring to see renters in Kansas City organizing and taking a stand. Deeply-entrenched landlords’ groups and influential developers have dominated the city’s housing debate for years.

Now, renters have a voice that will counterbalance the demands from developers and landlords and will raise important questions that deserve answers.

Not all of KC Tenants’ ideas should be embraced, though. Rent control, which is banned statewide, isn’t the answer. Neither is a call for political candidates to refuse donations from real estate developers and industry executives.

“Just know that if you go the friends and family and personal wealth approach to funding campaigns, you may limit the ability of candidates of color to compete in fundraising,” Councilman Quinton Lucas, a candidate for mayor and chairman of the housing committee, wrote in response to the group.

Organizers of KC Tenants challenged the 11 candidates running for mayor to make affordable housing in Kansas City as big of an issue as construction of the new $1.5 billion dollar terminal at Kansas City International Airport.

Some mayoral candidates have expressed interest in the group’s calls to action. Others have remained quiet.

The $75 million City Council members want to find to pay for affordable housing is a good start, KC Tenants says. But the ordinance lacks a funding source.

“It’s not worth the paper it’s printed on,” says Robert Long, president of the nonprofit landlord association Landlord, Inc.

Low-income folks deserve safe, affordable housing, Long said. But he strongly opposes KC Tenants’ people-over-profit message.

“Housing is a right,” he said. “We have a right to make a living.”

He’s right, but too often, landlords and developers have wielded outsized power and influence at City Hall.

Policy questions about evictions and affordable housing are central to the mayor’s race, and the emergence of KC Tenants should help ensure that these issues finally get the attention they deserve.

Candidates and elected officials should listen carefully to these voices and consider how, exactly, to address a growing housing crisis in Kansas City.