Will this Tenant Bill of Rights make a dent in KC’s affordable housing crisis?

The issue of affordable housing was front and center during the mayoral and City Council campaigns this spring. Candidates pledged to help low-income renters and ensure that their rights were protected.

Now, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and the entire City Council have an opportunity to make good on their campaign promises and make this city more livable for some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.

An ambitious affordable housing package that would establish a Tenant Bill of Rights and the Office of the Tenant Advocate, and protect a tenant’s right to counsel was released to the public this week.

The package includes two resolutions and an ordinance, and it’s expected to be heard by the council’s Housing Committee on Nov. 6.

The proposals include $1 million in annual funds for counsel and mediation for tenants in legal disputes with landlords, including evictions. Attorneys would provide services free of charge to tenants with incomes at or below 200% of the federal poverty line.

The advocate office would educate tenants about their rights, investigate claims, provide case support and enforce tenant rights, said housing advocate Tara Raghuveer of KC Tenants.

Legal protections against discrimination and a right to organize, collectively bargain and protection from retaliation are also included in the package of reforms.

Landlords would face revocation of their permits if tenants’ rights are violated.

KC Tenants, a tenants’ rights organization, worked for months on the proposals. And while the City Council will want to carefully consider some of the details, broadly speaking, the measures are an important step toward leveling the playing field for renters who have long been nearly powerless in many disputes with landlords.

Rent control, which is prohibited by state law, is not addressed in the proposal. But what happens if landlords decide to hike prices for struggling renters?

“We have limited security deposits, which is the most we can do at this time considering state law,” Raghuveer said. “There’s no reason the rest of this should cause landlords to increase rents.”

Another potential problem area is a prohibition on discrimination based on rental history. People who don’t pay their rent or who destroy property should not be a protected class. And property owners should not be saddled with delinquent or destructive tenants.

In general, the proposals leave a tremendous amount of wiggle room for both sides. But do they have teeth?

“Arbitrary efforts to limit tenant screening procedures greatly increases the risk, and thus the cost, of providing affordable housing,” a spokeswoman for Kansas City Regional Housing Alliance, a landlord group, said in a statement.

City Council members have an opportunity to send an unequivocal message to Kansas City landlords that they will be held accountable for unjust rental policies.

The bill of rights package is supported by legal experts, both inside and outside City Hall. It addresses the issues faced by the 48% of Kansas City residents who rent: affordability, access, health and accountability.

Lucas and City Council members Brandon Ellington, Melissa Robinson and Eric Bunch have said they support the proposal.

If the City Council is serious about addressing the affordable housing issue in Kansas City, it’s time to take action.

After smoothing out a few details, City Council members should pass the measures together and fully fund this effort to ensure implementation and enforcement.

In Kansas City, tenants should have rights, too.

Related stories from Kansas City Star