Some Kansas City renters are angry- a new tenant advocacy group is hoping to help them
Brandy Granados just needed heat in her home. Instead, she’s facing eviction.
In November, Granados, 36, heard a loud metallic banging in the basement of the 1890s house in the Lykins neighborhood east of downtown which she’d been renting for $500 a month. The ancient furnace had stopped working, so Granados called her landlord and asked him to fix it. When the landlord came over and tried to re-light her furnace, Granados says, “a burst of flames singed off his eyebrows. “
“I asked him what happens if we die because of this,” she says, “and he said that my family could sue the city.”
In January, Granados’ landlord took her to evictions court. She won, defeating his claim that she had not paid her rent. Nevertheless, she is being evicted. Granados had a month-to-month lease, and after the hearing her landlord served her with a 30-day notice to get out.
That makes Granados one of 9,000 evictions in Jackson County last year—a figure which doesn’t include all the many unofficial evictions done outside the legal process.
The plight of Granados and others like her became arguably the top issue in Kansas City’s 2019 mayoral election, as most of the 11 candidates who battled for two places on the June ballot cited housing as the biggest issue facing the city.
Renters are potentially a powerful constituency considering that nearly half of the population of Missouri’s largest city—46 percent—lives in rental housing.
The issue is being brought to center stage by a group called KC Tenants, which protested at City Hall in March. The group, founded by Harvard-educated activist Tara Raguhveer, is pushing for a series of reforms including a moratorium on evictions during severe weather, and a tenant “bill of rights” that would include the right to counsel in court and protection from retaliation.
Kelly Clark, president of the Apartment Association of Kansas City, leads an organization that represents landlords and management companies that operate more than 90,000 units in the metro area. It’s a diverse group, and has not established a position on the demands of KC Tenants.
“If there are new housing policies being created, we would want to be a part of the process to ensure they are mutually beneficial for both residents and landlord,” she says.
Given the many jurisdictions that make up the metro area, the approach to new laws is bound to be uneven. But the focus of KC Tenants is the east side of KCMO, where evictions hit disproportionately hard. Kansas City tenants are 19 times more likely to be evicted if they live east of Troost, according to statistics compiled by the group.
Many of those affected are people like Granados, a single mother who already had a previous eviction. In June 2018, Granados lost access to medication for her bipolar disorder and suffered deep depression. Unable to work, she was evicted and had to move in with her sister. When the house across the street from her sister became available, she put down a $1,000 deposit.
The home was far from perfect, even before the heater stopped working just as winter’s chill set in. The home has cracked linoleum floors, dilapidated appliances and dripping faucets. Granados rented a carpet cleaner but couldn’t completely remove the carpet’s acrid odor and stains.
And yet, Granados didn’t want to move. The neighborhood is safe, her sister lives across the street, and her job as a security guard near Crown Center is only two bus stops away.
Her 7-year-old son, who has ADHD and other special needs attends a therapeutic educational program only available to students living inside the boundaries of the city school district.
“I want him to live in the same home and go to the same school,” Granados sighs. “But my landlord is retaliating because I reported all his code violations.”
In January, Granados’ landlord took her to evictions court.
“He told the judge that he’d explained all about the issues the house had, which was why the house was so cheap,” Granados says. “Luckily, I had my copy of the lease.”
According to Granados, the landlord claimed she hadn’t paid her rent and everything was in working order, which she combated.
“I took pictures of everything that was wrong and printed them. I had copies of my rent payments, too,” she said. “And the judge believed me.”
The landlord’s attorney, Jacki Harmon Breen, declined to respond to questions regarding the case. Another attorney for the landlord, Robert James Wise, stated that his client had followed Missouri law in giving Granados 30-day notice. Wise would not disclose his client’s contact information because “he doesn’t speak English very well.”
Even though she was later told she had to leave, by prevailing in court the first time Granados already got further than most tenants.
Tenants only won 18 of the 6,952 evictions cases heard in Jackson County in 2017, according to the Kansas City Eviction Project. Eighty-four percent of landlords had lawyers in court while only 1.3 percent of tenants did.
And that doesn’t include the extralegal evictions where, as Raghuveer puts it, “landlords come to the door with a gun.”
Gina Chiala, a lawyer who co-founded Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, appears on behalf of tenants who are facing eviction and often do not understand their rights. She says that the regulations KC Tenants are proposing will make a big difference.
“Tenants don’t know what to file; they don’t know when to file,” Chiala says. “The law requires judges to set cases as soon as possible, but two or three weeks is not enough time to prepare a case.”
Even though she won her eviction case, Granados worries she’ll have more trouble renting in the future. Honest landlords don’t want to do business with her because of her eviction.
“It’s like The Scarlet Letter,” she says. “I’m branded no matter what I do.”
▸46% of KC residents are renters
▸Kansas City tenants who live east of Troost are 19x more likely to be evicted
▸1.3% of tenants had a lawyer in eviction court, compared to 84% of landlords