A group of tenants in Kansas City, Missouri, is celebrating a victory after the city council approved legislation last week creating a tenants’ bill of rights. The bill is a public resource that will help tenants navigate their relationship with landlords, and — just as critically, organizers say — an official expression of solidarity from the local governing body.
In Kansas City, the new Tenants Bill of Rights resolution notes, 46 percent of residents are renters, and 44 percent of renters are cost burdened, paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Around 34 evictions were filed per day in 2018 in Jackson County, according to the resolution, putting nearly 9,000 renter families at risk of homelessness and a host of related consequences for physical, mental, and financial health. The resolution acknowledges that racist policies like restrictive deed covenants and redlining created lasting inequalities in the housing market, and that tenants face discrimination based on “race, gender, sexuality, mental and physical ability, immigration status, country of origin, and much more.”
“The City Council believes that every person should have a safe, accessible, affordable home, and affirms, in partnership with grassroots tenant leadership and housing providers, its active commitment to tenant and housing provider rights now and in the future,” the resolution says.
The resolution is accompanied by an ordinance that implements new tenant protections, including:
Prohibits landlords from refusing a tenant solely on the basis of past evictions, race, gender identity, and other non-discrimination rules,
Prevents landlords from entering an apartment without giving the tenant at least 24 hours notice of when and with whom they plan to enter,
Requires landlords to provide prospective tenants with information about utility providers and past utility usage so that tenants can get an estimate of utility costs,
Requires that landlords tell tenants about any deficiencies or property citations issued in the previous two years,
Creates a Rental Housing Assistance Unit to keep tenants apprised of rights, and in some cases to offer relocation assistance to low-income tenants in emergencies,
Prohibits retaliation against tenants who report violations,
And affirms tenants’ right to organize and form tenants’ associations.
The bill and the resolution were championed by Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and approved by the city council with only a few dissenting votes, according to The Kansas City Star. But they were primarily the work of KC Tenants, an upstart group of activists and tenants that didn’t even exist at the beginning of 2019. The group was formed by Tara Raghuveer, a native of Kansas City, Kansas, and an organizer with the national progressive group People’s Action. Raghuveer was previously behind the Kansas City Eviction Project, which compiled data on evictions in the area. The Tenants’ Bill of Rights was a priority for KC Tenants since its inception, and the group was able to make renters’ rights a top issue in the local elections in the spring, when Lucas won the mayor’s office.
“I think this campaign has been a learning experience for us and a learning experience for the City of Kansas City, Missouri, in terms of how to not only make good policy, but to do it with the people who are going to be the most impacted by it leading every step of the way,” Raghuveer says. “I can’t overstate the significance of just having rights compiled in one place, including the right to organize without retaliation.”
The campaign survived a series of compromises. What passed last week was maybe 85 percent of what was in the bill when it was introduced earlier in the fall, which itself was about 85 percent of what KC Tenants was initially demanding, Raghuveer says. Compared versions of the resolution and ordinance show some evidence of the back and forth between advocates, the city, and landlords, some of whom were opposed to portions of the bill, according to local reports. A line in the resolution about racism in the housing market was removed from the final version, for example, and a provision of the ordinance was changed so that landlords would have to provide information about utilities, rather than producing an estimate of utility costs themselves. KC Tenants was also pushing for a right to counsel for people facing evictions and a ban on source-of-income discrimination to help tenants with housing choice vouchers, which didn’t make it into the bill.
But for KC Tenants organizer Tiana Caldwell, some of the provisions would have had a huge impact on her life if they’re been in place previously. Caldwell was evicted from her apartment when she fell behind on rent after being diagnosed with cancer for a second time, and in the months that followed, she was forced to stay in hotels because landlords wouldn’t rent to her knowing that she’d been recently evicted. Throughout the KC Tenants campaign, Caldwell, who also is part of the Homes Guarantee campaign organized by People’s Action, has told her story repeatedly at rallies and to reporters — including to Next City. She’s had to relive the worst moments of the experience, but, she says, “It keeps you grounded and it brings you back to the center — the reason why all of this is necessary.”
The KC Tenants campaign is Caldwell’s first experience in activism, and she says it was “eye-opening” to work with elected officials to negotiate over the terms of the legislation. She says it was empowering to have a seat at the table, and that officials listened to everyone and didn’t cave to the opposition. In November, for example, the mayor helped lead a press conference to clarify what the tenants were trying to accomplish.
“I don’t know what I had been expecting from the process, but I am blown away,” Caldwell says.
The tenants bill of rights is a baseline for more organizing work, Raghuveer says. Already, tenants in Springfield and Jefferson City have started to work on similar efforts. Building pressure at the local levels could help change expectations for what’s possible at the state level too, she says. But in the meantime, the next step will be organizing tenants, building by building.
“I think the key in implementation will be if we can actually run some of the worst actors out of business in the next couple years,” Raghuveer says. “I think that will be the proof of concept.”
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Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.