Jenay Manley gives a speech using a bullhorn during KC Tenants' rally on June 26 to present its plan for a People's Housing Trust Fund.
(File Photo) June 26, 2021 — KC Tenants leader Jenay Manley gives a speech during the group's Tenant Reckoning rally in June 2021. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

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In eviction court proceedings, landlords usually have the upper hand. They often appear in court with lawyers, while tenants are more likely to arrive alone — if they show up at all. 

In Kansas City, Missouri, where landlords typically file hundreds of evictions each month, a newly passed “right to counsel” ordinance seeks to balance the scales. Beginning in June, all tenants threatened with eviction will be guaranteed access to a lawyer if they want one, thanks to an ordinance the City Council approved last week.

The ordinance was introduced by Andrea Bough, at-large councilwoman for the 6th District. A coalition of local groups — citywide tenants union KC Tenants, workers’ advocacy group Stand Up KC, the Missouri Workers Center and the Heartland Center for Jobs & Freedom, a local nonprofit that provides pro bono legal services in eviction cases — developed the measure.

“The passage of ‘right to counsel’ is transformative and will have a systemic impact on our courts,” said Gina Chiala, executive director and staff attorney at the Heartland Center. “It will take what was a very oppressive process and inject fairness into it, so that the courts are no longer a place of oppression. Instead, they’re a place of justice.”

Chiala expects the number of evictions to decrease as a result. 

“​​What we know is that having a lawyer makes the difference between a person staying housed or being on the streets, and we expect that to carry into the future, because this is an established right and not just a temporary program,” she said. 

Chiala said more lawyers became available to legal service organizations during the pandemic to help tenants facing eviction. Legal Aid of Western Missouri and the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law also provide free legal representation in eviction cases. Those additional resources, boosted by the availability of federal COVID relief funding, helped lay the groundwork for the city’s ordinance, Chiala said. 

“We’ve been calling on this for a long time,” she said. “And when Stand Up KC and KC Tenants joined us in that call, we knew we would have the power in numbers to actually get it passed.”

When can Kansas City renters expect to start using the new right-to-counsel program? By June at the latest, as the ordinance directs City Manager Brian Platt to execute contracts with legal services organizations to hire more lawyers by then. The ordinance directs Platt to identify a source to initially fund the program within 90 days.

Future impact for tenants in Kansas City

Research in other cities has shown that tenants are more likely to experience positive outcomes when they have a lawyer by their side in court.. 

A study from Minnesota’s Hennepin County found that tenants with a lawyer were twice as likely to stay housed and that 78% of represented tenants did not receive an eviction judgment on their rental record. 

Data from Eviction Lab shows more than 5,000 evictions have been filed in Kansas City, Missouri, so far this year. The number of evictions increased after the federal eviction moratorium expired in late August. 

In 2019, before the pandemic began, more than 9,000 evictions were filed in Jackson County, Missouri.

“Now looking towards the future, up to most likely 7,000 to 8,000 tenants a year will now be guaranteed a lawyer, provided by the city, to have their backs and to help them evade a really harmful, inhumane and unjust eviction filing on the record, which will keep countless families together,” said Mason Andrew Kilpatrick, a leader with KC Tenants.

Bough called an eviction a “scarlet letter” for tenants. An eviction can cause financial and emotional hardship for families, making it more difficult to find housing in the future.

“One of the city’s responsibilities is to ensure safe and affordable housing for its citizens,” she said. “So I think this is an absolute key role that we can play to address some issues that the city is facing.”

Tenants like Kansas City resident and Stand Up KC member Donique Golston know what it’s like to go through the eviction process without a lawyer. Golston believes the outcome would’ve been better if she’d had an attorney to negotiate with the property manager. 

“When I went to the courthouse, it was devastating,” Golston said of her 2019 eviction. “I felt heartbroken. I felt like I failed as a mom and just as an adult.”

How KC’s right-to-counsel law compares with others 

Kansas City is the 13th city in the U.S. to pass a law guaranteeing legal representation to tenants facing eviction. Three states — Washington, Maryland and Connecticut — passed such laws this year. 

Kansas City’s ordinance comes with no income restrictions or means testing. Making the program universal takes extra bureaucracy out of the process, Chiala said.

“Eviction cases are daunting, they’re heavy, they move fast,” she said. “And you don’t want the lawyers and the clients having to fiddle around with paperwork and proving income, when they need to be focusing on how to keep the tenant housed.”

Out of the 13 cities with a right-to-counsel policy, seven have income limitations on who can receive representation. In New York, full legal representation is available to tenants “whose annual gross household income is not in excess of 200% of the federal poverty guidelines,” though the law makes legal services available to tenants of the New York City Housing Authority. 

​​What we know is that having a lawyer makes the difference between a person staying housed or being on the streets.

Gina chiala, executive director, heartland center for jobs and freedom

San Francisco, which passed its right-to-counsel law in 2018, has no income limit. Recent data on the impact of the law there found a 10% decrease in eviction filings from 2018 to 2019. The city also found that out of the two-thirds of tenants receiving full legal representation, 67% stay in their homes. 

John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, an advocacy group that supports guaranteed legal representation in eviction cases and other civil proceedings, said there’s been a push in recent years for right-to-counsel programs that are universal and without means testing. 

“We know that just because you’re not indigent doesn’t mean that you’re anywhere close to being able to afford what counsel costs on the private market,” he said.

How the right-to-counsel program will be structured

Now that the right-to-counsel ordinance has passed in Kansas City, next steps include training more lawyers, finding sustainable funding sources and conducting outreach to tenants. The city will hire an assistant director in the Housing and Community Development Department to be in charge of tenant legal services. 

“We’re going to be looking at training and how to ensure that all the lawyers who are handling this work are really strongly grounded in the knowledge that they need to be able to adequately defend tenants,” Chiala said.

The ordinance calls for a committee to work with the new assistant director in managing the program. Members of the committee must be in place within 60 days, according to the legislation. 

Dec. 2, 2021 — Members of KC Tenants, Stand Up KC and the Missouri Workers Center rallied in front of City Hall to announce their campaign to pass a right to counsel policy in Kansas City. The ordinance was introduced to City Council later that day. (Celisa Calacal/The Beacon)

The ordinance also directs the city to form contracts with nonprofit legal groups, such as Legal Aid and the UMKC School of Law, to increase staffing to provide representation. Bough said the goal is to have 15 lawyers for the program. 

The assistant director in City Hall will be responsible for coordinating with legal services organizations and the county courts. The ordinance states that lawyers working under the right-to-counsel program should have no more than 120 cases per year. 

The assistant director will also be responsible for notifying tenants of the program and how to access a lawyer within 10 days of an eviction filing. The ordinance requires property managers to make information on the program available to current and prospective tenants before a lease is signed. 

The right-to-counsel program will affect the judicial circuit courts of Jackson, Clay, Cass and Platte counties, which all include parts of Kansas City.

I think, absolutely, they’ll cooperate,” Bough said. “Having attorneys there who know the process will make the process go more smoothly for judges.”

As Kansas City begins building its right-to-counsel program, Pollock with the national movement said it’s important that tenants are included in the process to help with outreach.

“You need tenants to know about this program, and you need to trust that they’re going to use it,” he said.

Who to contact if you’re facing eviction and seeking representation

Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom: 816-278-1344

Legal Aid of Western Missouri: 816-474-6750 (Central Office on 4001 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.) or 816-474-9868 (Westside Office on 920 Southwest Blvd.)

United Way of Greater Kansas City: 211

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Celisa Calacal is a former reporter for The Beacon covering economics and civic engagement issues.