With the passage of its tenants bill of rights, the activist group KC Tenants has scored a historic win for renters in the city
Tiana Caldwell had never been involved in civil activism of any kind until a little over a year ago.
The 42-year-old had more pressing concerns. In the spring of 2018, Caldwell was diagnosed for the second time with ovarian cancer. Soon, she was unable to work. She fell behind on rent. In late 2018, Caldwell, her husband, and her son were evicted from their home. In addition to losing their residence, having an eviction on their record made it difficult for the Caldwells to find a new place to rent. When they finally did find housing, sewage poured from the pipes in the shower the very first night they moved in. The health department eventually deemed the home uninhabitable. The Caldwells spent the next six months living in hotels until finding a permanent place to live in the summer of 2019.
Early on in this process, when they had not yet been evicted, the Caldwells came across some information online that had been compiled by Tara Raghuveer, an activist and researcher then living in Chicago. Raghuveer’s research found that an average of 42 Kansas City residents were evicted from their homes every day. The Caldwells reached out to Raghuveer and discovered that she was planning a move back to Kansas City, her hometown, where she hoped to organize a movement focused on housing issues in the city.
Hardly a year later, the group Raghuveer founded and directs, KC Tenants, is an inescapable force in local politics. In December, with the help of new Mayor Quinton Lucas (whom they supported in the 2019 mayoral election), KC Tenants pushed through a Tenants Bill of Rights, a historic piece of housing policy that would have been unthinkable in Kansas City just a few years ago. Tiana Caldwell was not only among the first of a group that now counts roughly 250 Kansas Citians as members and claims to have connected with over 18,000 renters in the city. To Caldwell’s surprise, she’s also become one of its leaders.
“I’ve realized strengths I didn’t know that I had,” Caldwell says. “Before [KC Tenants] I probably would have cowered at the thought of speaking in front of a group of people. Now it’s become a normal thing for me. It’s taught me how much I care about other people. It’s taught me how policies work, about the hidden doors that aren’t public. I see things for what they are, but it also makes me feel empowered. Because there is a way to change things, and I had not realized that.”
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Raghuveer moved back to Kansas City at the beginning of 2019, and the first KC Tenants meeting was held in February. Only 12 people showed up. But slowly the ranks grew. New members began contacting people about their rental experiences through social media, by contacting people associated with eviction court cases, and by walking door-to-door. When the group’s first public rally was held, in March, KC Tenants had grown to 50 members. Not content to simply hold marches and protests, Raghuveer and her team began plotting how to change actual housing policy at the local level.
The answer seemed obvious: a municipal election was coming up in the summer. KC Tenants launched an aggressive public campaign, demanding answers from candidates about their positions on various housing issues. The group then put together a voter’s guide based on those responses. It was viewed online over 5,000 times, KC Tenants says. On election day, Lucas, the group’s preferred candidate for mayor, emerged victorious, as did several other council candidates who had committed to the KC Tenants housing platform.
“Nobody that was running for office was even talking about housing, or housing rights, or tenant rights, or anything,” says James Owens, a leader in KC Tenants and—like Caldwell—a first-time community activist. “By the end of the election they were all talking about housing rights or tenant rights to the point where our current mayor—by the time he was elected—was talking about how he wanted housing to be his legacy in Kansas City.”
With the election behind them and a seeming commitment to their cause from Kansas City’s elected officials, KC Tenants launched a specific campaign for a tenants bill of rights in the city.
To develop it, members formed a strategy team of close to 20. They spent hundreds of hours drafting the plan—gathering input primarily from the very people who would be most affected by changes in housing policy in the city. Several members of the group shared problems with housing units infected with mold, roaches, bedbugs, rats, and other horrendous health hazards. One tenant leader had explicitly asked her landlord if the unit she was moving into had any prior issues; she was told no, but found out after she moved in that the place had a history of bedbug infestations. Others spoke of the weight of having previous arrest, conviction, or eviction records that made it challenging to find safe and accessible housing in Kansas City. One tenant leader, Quadafi, served 22 years in prison. Since his release in August of 2019, he hasn’t been able to find housing.
“I live in my car even now,” Quadafi says. “It’s cold. It’s scary sometimes. I was released and told to go do something productive. I came out the door getting involved with organizations, trying to help, trying to aid, trying to assist, and every time it came down to personally being alright, I was turned down, kicked to the curb because of a prior conviction. Each time this happens it takes a little piece of my dignity away.”
It took KC Tenants leader Robert Richardson two years to find a place that would rent to him in Kansas City after he was released from a nine-year sentence. Richardson points out that he has the privilege of being a “well-educated, clean-cut, white male.”
“When I met Tara,” he says, “she said, ‘We need to change the way we treat people of all backgrounds in this city, because if it happens to you, it happens to everybody.’”
After the group identified the problems it wanted to address, Raghuveer and several leaders took those concerns to lawyers—even several landlords—and began the process of putting together a piece of legislation to take to the council.
“The tenants actually wrote this bill of rights,” says Janis Deveny, who owns and manages two rental properties with her husband. “They would ask me, ‘What do you think of this?’ And I’d say, ‘This one’s not gonna fly,’ or ‘Yeah, this one will.’”
They ended up with 12 separate pieces of legislation, which they then narrowed down to one resolution and two ordinances (only one of the ordinances ultimately made it before the council). Then they took it to the mayor and council to see which parts would hold up, and what might need to be amended.
“[Their approach] is a throwback to how democracy is supposed to work,” says Third District Councilman Brandon Ellington, one of KC Tenants’ champions on the council. “If you look at all of the movements when it comes to so-called ‘minority issues’ or ‘issues of the oppressed people,’ they always start at the grassroots organizing level. And then they use that organizing to effectuate law. And I think that’s what we’ve seen here.”
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Not everybody was on board. Many property owners in the city took issue with the tenant’s bill of rights package and the way the process unfolded.
At the December 2 housing committee meeting where the package was discussed, both sides of the issue were given 30 minutes to voice their thoughts, with one minute allowed per person. Kim Tucker, executive director of the Mid-America Association of Real Estate Investors, says it was too rushed.
“It was fair on both sides, but no one really got the chance to share their thoughts in depth,” says Tucker. “Why are we rushing it? Can we step back, bring both sides to the table, and come up with something that would actually address the problems of evictions and affordable housing?”
The opposition took issue with several parts of the package. Stacey Johnson-Cosby, a neighborhood leader and realtor who owns and manages 20 rental properties with her husband, found redundancy in most of the legislation. She says the role of the new division duplicates processes other departments—codes enforcement, health, neighborhood preservation—are already in place to do. “The way some of the housing providers or landlords are looking at it, it’s just one more place that tenants can go to complain about us,” Johnson-Cosby says, “and we think that’s unnecessary.”
Raghuveer counters that placing everything under one department enhances the enforcement mechanism, because the division will have the power to suspend or revoke a property owner’s license to do business in Kansas City. She says this will have a targeted impact on out-of-state corporate landlords who largely don’t seem to mind the $500 violation fine previously in place.
KC Tenants’ bill of rights requires landlords to disclose any past issues with their rental unit; to help tenants estimate the cost of utilities; and requires increased notice to a tenant before entering their unit. It also bars landlords from discriminating against tenants based solely upon record of prior arrests, convictions, or evictions, type of income, or because of 16 different protected traits that include race, gender expression, and victims of violence. (Every single protected class in the ordinance represents a member of KC Tenants.)
Property owners say the laundry list of protected traits makes it risky to own property in Kansas City, because they can now easily be accused of discrimination that could result in loss of their license.
“If we have, say, a pedophile who’s served their time,” Johnson-Cosby says, “and they come to me and say, ‘Stacey, I want to rent your property,’ and everything else about them is OK, but because I know there’s a family next to them with children, if I say ‘No, it’s not going to work here,’ they could then accuse me of discriminating against them because of their criminal history.”
Raghuveer points out that the new Division of Housing and Community Development will consist of an appeals board for landlords to go to in cases like that.
“I hope that we are able to sit down and amend it where it has errors,” Tucker says.
Property owners weren’t the only ones who made compromises. The original package included an ordinance that would have established a right to counsel for low-income tenants, with the city paying the cost of representation. That piece never made it to committee.
Tenants also suffered a loss when Lucas added a line to the ordinance during the committee hearing in early December: “In no event shall an owner be compelled to participate in an otherwise voluntary benefit or subsidy program.” Without that line, landlords would have been banned from discriminating against tenants who use federal vouchers like Section 8 as a source of their income to pay for rent. But under the amended ordinance, landlords retain the right to refuse tenants because they hold a voucher.
“The addition of that one sentence changed thousands of lives,” Raghuveer says. “On something like source of income discrimination, 13,000 people get some form of housing assistance in Kansas City. That’s 13,000 people who would have been impacted by this.”
The smell of mold permeates through the home of D. Gillespie, a KC Tenants leader who was directly impacted when the mayor wrote that line into the ordinance. The roof of her home leaks frequently and soaks the insulation in the attic. There are holes in the walls and cabinets where the rats that infest the home have chewed their way through the cherry wood. She’s thrown away countless pieces of furniture and appliances the rats have ruined, and her kitchen is piled high with stacks of plastic containers that protect her food from the rodents.
Gillespie says her landlord is well aware of the problems with the house, but he does nothing to fix them. Because she lives on Section 8 vouchers, she’s limited in the places she can go to rent housing. Gillespie feels like she has no choice but to stay where she’s at. Her mold and rat-infested home is better than no home at all. She was homeless for six months before she found the home she lives in now.
“With them not accepting source of income, I don’t know what I would even do if I had to move,” says Gillespie, who’s on Section 8 vouchers because of health issues that prevent her from working. “I’ve already been rejected by people who don’t accept Section 8.”
The tenants debated introducing an amendment before the full council to add the source of income discrimination protections for voucher holders back to the ordinance. In the end, the group decided it was too risky. Source of income discrimination will be one of the next battles KC Tenants goes on to fight for with city council.
“We’re going to come back for it,” Raghuveer says, citing that 15 states and 60 cities across the country already ban source of income discrimination.
The concessions did little to dampen the enthusiasm in the KCMO Council Chambers on December 12. The tenants bill of rights passed with only a few dissented votes. Whoops, hollers, and chants of “This is what democracy looks like!” rang out in the room. The following day, U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders tweeted his support. “Congratulations to the advocacy work done by @KCTenants to help pass a Tenants Bill of Rights in Kansas City,” Sanders wrote to his 10 million followers. “Safe, decent, and affordable housing is a human right, not a privilege.”
“This is such a huge, huge thing,” said Caldwell, bursting with joy after the vote. “We have revolutionized the way that policy is made.”
“This is our first bite at the apple,” Gillespie added. “We’re just getting started.”