On July 30, organizers from KC Tenants gathered outside of the Jackson County, Missouri, Courthouse in Kansas City to protest evictions. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

When 22-year-old Mars Smith moved to Kansas City, Missouri, from Topeka, Kansas, in 2019, she secured an apartment through a housing program called Shelter Plus Care, which pays the rent for those who are homeless and disabled. Now she’s facing eviction. 

“He says that I was tampering with the plumbing and I didn’t let him know of an excess leak,” Smith said of her landlord.

Smith is one of many tenants in the Kansas City area facing the threat of eviction in the middle of a worsening coronavirus pandemic. At a time when access to stable and safe housing is becoming even more crucial, millions of families nationwide could face the reality of eviction in the coming months. 

Without protections from a countywide eviction moratorium that ended May 31 or the federal eviction moratorium that expired July 24, many low-income tenants in Kansas City are facing the looming threat of housing insecurity. 

Since the pandemic began a series of shutdowns and stay-at-home orders across the U.S. in March, 1,228 “rent and possession” cases have been filed in Jackson County. Such cases are filed when a tenant hasn’t paid the rent. Since the moratorium’s expiration on May 31, 967 housing petitions have been filed, according to data provided to The Beacon by the Jackson County Circuit Court. 

Made with Flourish

Using figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, Stout, a global advisory firm, estimates 248,000 rental households are unable to pay rent and are at risk of eviction in Missouri — roughly one-third of all rental households in the state. It also estimates that over the next four months, 167,000 evictions could be filed.

The scarcity of options available during the pandemic, especially for low-income housing, has left tenants like Smith in a state of limbo. 

“There were other places that had apartments available, but they weren’t opening them because of the COVID,” she said.

‘It’s hard enough’

Since moving in, Smith has experienced roaches, a perpetually broken stove and 98-degree indoor temperatures due to a lack of air conditioning.

According to her, the landlord either ignores her or hires informal help. When the ceiling below her collapsed this June, maintenance broke out the wall underneath her sink. Her landlord says Smith tampered with the plumbing. One day, she woke up to a 10-day eviction notice posted on her door. 

She would move, but a limited budget has made affordable housing options scarce.

“It’s hard enough to have to try to find a place,” she said. 

Like many others, Smith lost employment because of COVID-19. Before securing her apartment, she had a job on the breakfast team at a hotel, but service was eventually shut down due to social distancing precautions. 

“I can’t say it is easy to find a job in the first place, but now with the COVID, it is limited to the ones that I could do,” she said. 

Underneath Mars Smith’s kitchen sink. Chase Castor/The Beacon

While the unemployment rate in Kansas City has seen a decline from its peak of 11.3% in April, the June rate of 7.8% was still double that of the same time last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Ashley Johnson is a tenant who tries to maintain multiple streams of income to support herself and her three children. Now, many jobs could compromise her family’s safety. 

“I was cab driving, and I had to quit because that’s too much of a risk,” she said. 

Johnson is also the owner of Dirt to Diva Enterprise, a holistic health and wellness space that she may have to shut down. 

“I have studio space that I’m paying for, but I don’t have any clients right now,” she said. “It’s coming up into the time for me that I probably should go ahead and give this space up.” 

Johnson is also battling court proceedings. An unlawful detainer summons, which is used when a landlord wants to evict someone who does not have a lease agreement, was written by her landlord in June and served to her at the end of July. 

“She had the audacity to put on the form that my rent was $800 a month. My rent has never been $800 a month. My rent has always been $500,” she said. 

Johnson moved into a privately owned transitional house after escaping a domestic violence situation left her family homeless. She said complaints to her landlord about pests, an inconsistent fridge and lack of air conditioning were met with hostility. 

“I asked her to get a professional exterminator because she thought it was OK to put down blocks of rat poisoning. I have a toddler,” she said. “She was very belligerent with me.”

Finding other housing has also become a hurdle. 

“People are not willing to show their properties,” she said. “A lot of people that I do contact, they’re saying, ‘I had that listing, but I’m not showing any houses at this time.’”

‘Nobody should be evicted in the middle of a pandemic’

A shortage of affordable housing in Kansas City was a major political issue prior to the pandemic. In the metro area, 80,000 renter households earn $20,000 a year or less, yet there are only 27,052 rental units where occupants pay $500 or less in rent, according to a 2016 analysis conducted by the Mid-America Regional Council. This means the housing market only serves about one-third of the need for those with the lowest incomes, according to MARC. 

“We currently have about 1,000 families on our public housing waitlist and 10,000 families on our voucher waitlist,” said Edwin Lowndes, executive director of the Housing Authority of Kansas City

On July 30, organizers from KC Tenants gathered outside of the Jackson County, Missouri, Courthouse in Kansas City to protest evictions. Zach Bauman/The Beacon

As the Housing Authority is limited by the amount of funds it receives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the number of families applying for affordable housing exceeds the amount of affordable housing available. COVID-19 only exacerbates the issue, Lowndes said.

“We are receiving more applications than we had prior to the pandemic,” Lowndes said. 

Existing protections for tenants in Kansas City include landlords not being able to discriminate on the basis of race, gender or religion, nor can they discriminate against victims of domestic violence or those with a criminal history. Additionally, it is the landlord’s responsibility to make any needed repairs within a reasonable time. 

 “There’s a lot of rights that are there, it’s just that enforcement is the problem,” said Jane Worley, head of the housing team for the Legal Aid of Western Missouri.

Last year, the city signed into effect the Tenants Bill of Rights. Created by KC Tenants, an organization advocating for fair and universal housing, the bill requires landlords to disclose all deficiencies and citations issued to their unit and utility history, and it prevents them from filing for eviction because the occupant has reported a violation. 

Now, the same group is calling for Jackson County to further tenant protections during the pandemic. “End evictions or people die” was the rallying call for a July 30 protest at city hall. 

“It is our belief that nobody should be evicted in the middle of a pandemic, when the best thing for us to do is stay at home,” said Wilson Vance, an organizer with KC Tenants. “We are functioning off the assumption that housing is a human right.”

As a safety precaution, the Jackson County court began to hear some eviction cases over conference calls. On the day of the rally, protestors phoned in to disrupt landlord/tenant hearings. Inside the courthouse, protestors disrupted in-person hearings, chanting, “Evictions are an act of violence,” as they were led outside by police. Out of a dozen disruptors, two people were arrested, both of whom were Black women. 

Prior to the pandemic, Black women were already disproportionately affected by evictions, experiencing them at twice the rate of white renters in 17 states, including Missouri, according to an analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union

What can be done to protect low-income tenants?

After the federal eviction moratorium ended on July 24, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Aug. 8 that did not extend the eviction moratorium, but instead directed the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to “consider” whether any measures temporarily halting residential evictions are “reasonably necessary to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.”

In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly announced a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures through Sept. 15, which she plans to extend should the U.S. Senate not address housing and unemployment concerns in another stimulus package. Meanwhile, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has not announced any plans for housing relief. 

As part of their July 30 protest against evictions outside of Jackson County, Missouri, Courthouse in Kansas City, KC Tenants draped a banner on the top of a nearby parking garage. Zach Bauman/The Beacon

In addition to a moratorium extension, KC Tenants is demanding rent and mortgage cancellation for the remainder of the pandemic, as well as universal and free utility services and expanded housing and services for people experiencing homelessness.

Many property owners, however, believe that such measures are unnecessary. 

“The eviction moratorium doesn’t even have to be a part of the issue if they get the rent paid,” said Stacey Johnson-Cosby, a board member of Landlords, Inc., and a member of the KC Regional Housing Alliance.

A landlord for 25 years, Johnson-Cosby believes the solution can be found in local resources, such as the Kansas City Regional COVID-19 Response & Recovery Fund, which has received $18 million in donations and issued over $10 million in grants to nonprofit organizations that support impacted communities. 

While relief programs directly provide aid, supporting all tenants throughout the entirety of the pandemic would require much more funding. The National Low Income Housing Coalition calls $100 billion the minimum viable amount; the National Apartment Association and National Multifamily Housing Council, which each represent landlords and property managers, estimate that renters may need $144 billion in assistance, according to the Aspen Institute, which proposes that the federal government fund renter assistance. 

In March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, a $2.2 trillion stimulus package, to aid businesses and individuals impacted by financial fallouts from COVID-19. Kansas City requested $54 million in CARES Act funding, and as of last week the city received its first $18 million through the Jackson County Commissioners, according to Mayor Quinton Lucas

Defunding the police, which became a national topic of discussion during widespread protests against police brutality, is a solution on the minds of many local activists. 

“The money is there, it’s just that people like our so-called leaders care more about landlords’ profit than people’s lives,” said Vance with KC Tenants.

For now, tenants like Smith must balance a search for housing opportunities with securing a job and preparing for upcoming court dates. The coronavirus is just one of many concerns.

“There’s no way that eviction should be right,” Smith said.

Mili Mansaray is a reporting intern with The Beacon. Contact her at mili@thebeacon.media

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MILI MANSARAY is the housing and labor reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. Previously, she was a freelance reporter and Summer 2020 intern.