Published August 27th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Amid struggles with lupus and a heart condition, Rachel Roman was laid off from her job after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Then came an eviction notice.
“All I can think about is being homeless again,” Roman said during a recent news briefing held by the Coalition to Protect Missouri Tenants in Kansas City.
“I’m afraid that all of my hard work will have been for nothing and I will end up on the street again, this time with my baby, in the middle of a pandemic. I don’t want my daughter to go through that.”
Roman’s story is emblematic of the plight facing financially struggling tenants in Kansas City and around the nation. While Kansas City often touts its low cost of living, renting a place to live here is not cheap.
According to a recent report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a worker needs to make at least $18.81 an hour to afford a two-bedroom rental home in Kansas City. It cited Kansas City as the most expensive cost of living region in Missouri.
The report said earnings of at least $16.07 were required to affordably pay rent for the average two-bedroom apartment in Missouri, while the average Missouri renter wage totaled only $15.28 an hour.
In July, the Yardi Matrix apartment information service reported that Kansas City is one of only eight metros nationwide where apartment rents are expected to increase or hold steady this year. The report said Kansas City experienced 2.2% rent growth between July 2019 and July 2020, the fifth-highest jump among 30 cities.
Tara Raghuveer, founding director of the KC Tenants advocacy group, said two-bedroom apartment rent has been out of reach for minimum wage workers throughout the country for at least three years.
But the housing affordability crisis has been exacerbated by the pandemic, Raghuveer said.
“Tenants are in an extraordinary amount of pain,” she said. “People have lost jobs, bills have stacked up, kids have been sent home from school. People have gotten sick and died. People have been unable to pay the rent and forced into unconscionable decisions, like putting food on the table or paying the rent. At no level of government has anyone done anything that has adequately met the scale of the crisis.”
Mason Kilpatrick, an organizer with KC Tenants, said he has heard many heartbreaking stories from people who have called into a hotline set up by the organization.
“You have a lot of hard-working families, hard-working tenants, who don’t have a rainy day fund because they can’t afford one, mostly because they don’t have jobs that pay them enough to do that, or their rent is incredibly expensive,” he said. “Some of them are being threatened with eviction. It summarizes how flawed our housing system is.”
KC Tenants says more than 361,000 Missouri households face eviction because they can’t make their rent payments. An eviction moratorium for Jackson County ended on May 31, and a federal eviction moratorium expired in July. KC Tenants says more than 1,600 Jackson County evictions have come before the courts since that time.
In late July, members of KC Tenants showed up at the Jackson County Courthouse and took actions that caused eviction dockets to shut down.
Tiana Caldwell, an organizer with KC Tenants, said that “eviction leads to job loss, and the instability of homelessness makes it harder for people to return to work. Homelessness and relocation stress add another barrier for the unemployed and working class as they strive to enter the workforce.”
The Coalition to Protect Missouri Tenants, which includes the KC Tenants group, on August 20 sent a letter to Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice George W. Draper III, asking for a statewide eviction moratorium to last at least six months.
“Over the next four months, an estimated 243,000 evictions will be filed across Missouri, as a result of the job loss and lack of government protections throughout the Coronavirus pandemic,” the letter stated. “Eviction is already a fundamentally traumatic event, both a cause and a condition of poverty, and the pandemic only adds more anguish.”
The letter pointed out the “alarming disparity in COVID-19 deaths. While representing 11.5 percent of the Missouri population, Black Missourians make up one-third of the COVID-19 deaths in the state. Let us be clear: evictions are a death sentence for our most vulnerable neighbors.”
In addition, the letter stated that the Coalition was asking Missouri Gov. Mike Parson “to stem homelessness by prioritizing prevention programs that keep tenants in their homes, and by investing in permanent, truly affordable, supportive housing.”
The coalition asked Parson “to make funding available to property owners if they cancel rent payments and arrears, do not pursue formal or informal evictions, and adhere to a set of strict conditions for the protection of Missouri tenants and their families related to receipt of public funding.”
The rental housing crisis also is causing upheaval in Kansas.
Vince Munoz, an organizer with Rent Zero Kansas, is advocating for rent cancellation legislation. In an Aug. 20 posting on the Kansas Reflector website, Munoz noted that Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly had issued another two-week eviction moratorium.
“While this undoubtedly will keep people off the streets, working-class Kansas is bleeding, and without further action, the moratorium is just another Band-Aid,” Munoz wrote.
Munoz took note of the proposed federal Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act, sponsored by U.S Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, that would cancel all rent payments and primary residence mortgage payments for the duration of the pandemic.
“Kansas could implement a smaller version of this that halts evictions and compensates landlords in a profit-neutral way for those unable to pay,” Munoz wrote. “It could spare tenants the debt, and by extension the eviction, that they would still incur once the moratorium expires. A rent and mortgage cancellation keeps tenants from homelessness and financial ruin with minimal disruption to the economy. It’s the only fair way to distribute the financial burden of this global pandemic and keep ourselves, families and neighbors safe and healthy.”
The rental housing affordability crisis, intensified by the pandemic, has spotlighted the spectrum of interactions that occur between landlords and tenants. Things usually go well when tenants pay their rent on time and landlords fulfill their responsibilities to tenants. Otherwise, not so much.
Kilpatrick, with KC Tenants, said he has heard many anecdotes about landlords “who have no empathy, no sense of solution, and not even a desire to work with tenants to help keep them in the home and safe during this pandemic.”
Kilpatrick said the worst offenders frequently are “corporate or out-of-state landlords, who are taking advantage of tenants.”
Nonetheless, Kilpatrick said, “I think there are pretty good, decent landlords out there that might be trying to work with their tenants.”
Wilson Vance, a KC Tenants campaign manager, said that “there are some landlords who are working with tenants. There are always going to be landlords who see that it is in their interest to keep tenants in their homes, especially during a pandemic. It’s just wiser to keep people housed and try to work with them and come up with some kind of payment plan.”
Robert Long, president of Landlords Inc., a Kansas City-based nonprofit advocacy organization, said Kansas City residential rental rates have been pumped up by a variety of factors. Among them are rising real estate prices, increases in property taxes, and the cost of increasing governmental regulation, he said.
Long pointed out regulations such as the Tenants Bill of Rights passed by Kansas City in 2019. The Tenants Bill of Rights includes a stipulation that “all residential rental property units must meet minimum health and safety standards of basic utilities and facilities, ventilation and heating, safety from fire, and safe and sanitary maintenance.”
Long said many Kansas City rental housing owners are “small mom-and-pop landlords who typically have four-to-10 single-family homes. They’re generally local people. They don’t feel like they have the infrastructure to put up with the increased regulations.”
Long said many such landlords end up selling their rental properties to owner-occupants or out-of-state investors.
“We are in a pandemic,” Long said. “Housing providers are trying to work with our tenants to help them keep their homes. When the government says you can’t evict people who haven’t paid their rent, the housing provider has to keep making the mortgage payment, has to keep making the property tax payment, the insurance and maintenance. That will cause some landlords to fail.”
Long added that “if we want to, as a society, say that we shouldn’t be evicting people who can’t pay their rent right now, we as a society have to figure out how to help people pay their rent and not put it on the back of the housing provider.”
Stacey Johnson-Cosby, a residential landlord and president of the KC Regional Housing Alliance, said most landlords work with their tenants to keep them housed.
“It’s in our best interest to work with our tenants to keep them in their properties,” she said. “All we ask is that they reach out to us, explain what’s going on, and then let’s figure out how to get it repaid.”
Johnson-Cosby said eviction moratoriums hurt all parties. She said a six-month extension would end next winter, an especially bad time for people to be evicted.
She said rental property owners would have to keep paying mortgages, taxes and repair bills during an extended eviction moratorium, creating a financial strain that could bring foreclosure upon more rental properties.
But Raghuveer, with KC Tenants, said “evictions are an act of violence, especially during a pandemic. Every time we allow an eviction to occur, we are saying that landlord profits are more important than people’s lives.”
Flatland contributor Julius A. Karash is a Kansas City-based writer.