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On a Thursday afternoon in September, Deoshaun James was perched on a wooden bench on the seventh floor of the downtown Kansas City, Missouri, Jackson County Courthouse, waiting for the judge to call his eviction case.
James received an eviction notice at the beginning of June. His case has been continued several times, and he recently received rental assistance and hoped that would enable him to avoid an eviction.
But like most tenants faced with eviction, James didn’t have a lawyer representing him.
“I didn’t really think about a lawyer or anything like that,” he said. “I was just gonna kind of come in and just deal with the consequences.”
That afternoon, James lost his case. Now there’s an eviction judgment on his record, and he owes about $3,000.
The outcome comes as no surprise to attorney John Bonacorsi, who represents tenants in eviction cases with the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom.
“When someone shows up to court and they can’t access an attorney, almost every single time, that case ends up in a judgment and with them being forced from their home,” Bonacorsi said.
For tenants like James, legal representation can make or break their chances of avoiding an eviction judgement and losing their home. National research estimates that about 90% of landlords have legal representation in eviction cases, whereas 90% of tenants do not.
One study of eviction cases in Minnesota’s Hennepin County found that tenants with full representation won or settled their cases 96% of the time. More than two-thirds of tenants without an attorney could not keep their homes.
Local attorneys like Bonacorsi see a similar dynamic play out in Kansas City. They worry that tenants will be on their own as eviction filings speed up now that moratoriums have been lifted. Data from the Eviction Lab, combined with data provided to The Kansas City Beacon from the Jackson County Court, shows that 3,296 eviction cases had been filed this year as of the end of August.
The consequences for receiving an eviction judgement are dire. In the short-term, it means a tenant will lose their current home. In the long-term, an eviction makes it more difficult to find future housing. That’s not to mention the traumatic financial and emotional devastation an eviction can have on families.
“Now that we don’t have a moratorium in place, cases are moving much quicker, which means you have less time as a tenant to seek out representation,” said Rachel North, an attorney at Legal Aid of Western Missouri, a legal organization offering legal services to tenants experiencing eviction.
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees legal representation only to defendants in criminal cases. Eviction cases go through civil court, meaning tenants don’t have a guaranteed right to a lawyer.
Bonacorsi’s work with the Heartland Center shows how different the outcomes can be when a tenant has a lawyer.
“In 99% of our cases, we’ve been able to get dismissals and to keep people housed,” he said. “It literally is flipping the outcomes on their head, when someone has the benefit of an attorney.”
Passing right to counsel in Kansas City
Local attorneys and tenant advocates have long called for a “right to counsel” protection for tenants facing evictions in Kansas City.
“Tenants should always have the access to attorney and universal representation,” Bonacorsi said. “But where we are now, with the pandemic raging on, with the moratorium ended and with people unable, and in very large numbers, to access the rental assistance that is out there for their benefit … I can’t imagine a more critical time for people to have the benefit of an attorney.”
A guaranteed right to counsel was a priority of local housing justice group KC Tenants when it launched its 2019 campaign to pass a Tenants Bill of Rights. Right to counsel was part of the Tenants Bill of Rights package, but would have been introduced as a separate ordinance. Morgan Said, spokesperson with the mayor’s office in Kansas City, said the ordinance was pulled because the mayor’s office did not think they had the votes or the funding to pass the policy.
The Kansas City Council passed the Tenants Bill of Rights ordinance protecting tenants at the end of 2019, without any language on right to counsel. Said said the mayor’s office remains open to conversations about a right-to-counsel policy in Kansas City.
Other cities in recent years have passed right-to-counsel policies for tenants facing eviction. New York City was the first U.S. city to pass the policy in 2017.
A report from the Office of Civil Justice in New York City found that 38% of tenants in eviction court were represented by an attorney in the first half of 2020. That’s a marked increase from 2013, when only 1% of tenants had representation. The report also found that eviction filings overall have decreased from nearly 29,000 in 2013 to about 17,000 in 2019.
In total, seven cities in the U.S. have passed some form of a right-to-counsel policy since 2017.
In recent weeks, KC Tenants has discussed launching a new campaign to pass a guaranteed right-to-counsel policy in Kansas City. Founding director Tara Raghuveer said that means every person facing eviction should have the opportunity to seek and gain representation.
“Every eviction is an act of violence, and evictions shouldn’t occur in the way that they occur today, whether or not we’re in a pandemic,” Raghuveer said. “One of the lowest hanging fruit options that any government has to make the process of eviction marginally less violent is to guarantee representation.”
A push for a right-to-counsel guarantee raises jurisdictional challenges, Raghuveer said. For example, should the policy be handled by the city of Kansas City, Missouri, or Jackson County? A city policy would cover renters within the municipality, but eviction cases are handled at the county level — and Kansas City includes parts of four counties.
Other concerns involve funding and legal capacity: Are there enough lawyers, and is there enough funding, to guarantee representation to every tenant served with an eviction notice?
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.)
John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, says it’s a matter of priorities.
“The resources are there, we’re just sort of suggesting a redirection of some of them to an earlier part of the process,” Pollock said. “We call it preventative legal medicine.”
But Raghuveer cautions that winning a right-to-counsel policy in Kansas City is not the silver bullet, “end all be all” solution against the eviction crisis.
“A lawyer in eviction court isn’t going to guarantee someone a safe and secure place to live, right?” she said. “A lawyer in an eviction court isn’t necessarily going to contend with the fact of how few rights tenants actually have in a state like Missouri. A lawyer in an eviction court isn’t necessarily going to make that process not violent.”
The difference a lawyer makes in an eviction case
Kansas City resident Harvey Nash, 63, received an eviction notice in August after he fell behind on rent. His first hearing is at the end of September, and he plans to attend without an attorney.
Nash already suspects the scales will be tipped against him.
“I hate that I feel like my back is up against the wall versus a landlord,” he said. “These judges … grant evictions. So see, it’s two against one. Maybe three against one: the owner, the lawyer and the judge against me. I don’t think I could take on three people at one time.”
North at Legal Aid said it can be intimidating for a tenant to go to court alone.
“These are complex issues, and they’re not easy to navigate on your own if you don’t have a legal background to understand what’s going on,” she said.
Burden falls on small organizations to represent tenants in eviction court
Without a government-funded right to counsel in Kansas City, local legal organizations attempt to provide pro bono legal representation to tenants facing eviction.
Attorneys with the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom and Legal Aid of Western Missouri are in the courthouse every Thursday, which is when most eviction cases are handled.
They try to connect with tenants awaiting eviction proceedings and offer legal advice and possibly representation.
Bonacorsi said he and another attorney at the Heartland Center, John Michael Pipes, each fully represent about 150 tenants a year.
But with more than 6,000 evictions filed in Jackson County since March 2020 — fewer than what the court normally sees because of the pandemic — most tenants are on their own.
“Without universal representation, we can’t represent everyone we want,” Bonacorsi said.
The pandemic pushed the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s School of Law to create a “tenant representation initiative” last November. The United Way of Greater Kansas City refers tenants who are facing eviction to work with recent law school graduates and students.
Jeffrey Thomas, associate dean for strategic initiatives and graduate programs at UMKC and a law professor, said the initiative has represented about 450 tenants since launching. A team of four lawyers and three law students work on the cases. Nearly all the cases have been resolved by settlement with landlords, allowing tenants to avoid an eviction, Thomas said.
“There’s a very organized way that the matters are handled, and it’s not intuitive or obvious to the layperson what that is, but a lawyer can step in and understand it quite readily, quite quickly, and help to resolve the matter,” he said.
Meanwhile, Nash is preparing for his first appearance in eviction court at the end of the month. He feels OK about representing himself, but he still wishes he had backup.
“If the owners of these properties are having a lawyer, we should be able to have lawyers, too,” he said. “It should be a no-brainer.”
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