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Tenants in Kansas City public housing face evictions

When it rains, Shawn Harris dumps dirty water out of a big pot perched on his bed at least seven times a day.

If he doesn’t, water spills through the ceiling onto his mattress, which is ruined anyway, he said. So is his couch. The three-year tenant knows both furniture pieces, among other tattered items, will be trashed when he manages to come up with the money to move out of Nob Hill Apartments & Townhomes in South Kansas City.

That moving day is coming sooner than he expected.

Last month, the 47-year-old got a letter from the Housing Authority of Kansas City telling him he had 90 days to move out of the complex, bordered by Bannister Road and Highway 71.

When all of the units, funded partially by housing choice vouchers, failed inspection once and often twice, the housing authority stopped funding vouchers to Nob Hill apartments and any other property owned by the same company: KM-T.E.H. Realty.

The housing authority said tenants aren’t being forced to leave. But without the vouchers, tenants would have to pay the full price to avoid an eviction.

Tenants on a fixed income told The Kansas City Star that’s nearly impossible.

“We not some dogs in the kennel,” Harris said. “We human beings.”

The company has a record of failing to maintain its properties, and has faced multiple lawsuits in Kansas City and St. Louis. It’s being sued by investors, court records show.

In January, the Jackson County Circuit Court granted a request for receivership filed by U.S. Bank National Association, acting for a mortgage company, against an LLC the company operates.

Residents of another T.E.H. Realty property in Kansas City, Ruskin Place Apartments, filed a class-action lawsuit against the company in October.

The lawsuit filed in Jackson County alleges that T.E.H. Realty buys distressed properties, like Nob Hill, and rents out units without hands-on management despite numerous complaints from tenants. Some of those issues include roaches, mice, mold, and lack of air conditioning and heat.

The lawsuit sums up the Israel-based company’s business practices as profiting “at the expense of vulnerable tenants by collecting full rents while refusing to invest in keeping its properties safe and habitable” and retaliating “against its tenants who complain of the substandard conditions.”

Sen. Josh Hawley has called for federal investigations into the company. In November, Mayor Quinton Lucas endorsed Hawley’s calls, saying in a statement that, “TEH Realty is a large, out-of-town company that’s made a fortune preying on low-income Kansas Citians and Missourians.”

When The Star called the Nob Hill office, a company employee refused to comment. When The Star called again with additional questions, the phone line was no longer operational.

Tenants like Harris said they have paid their rent on time each month. Now, because the management never took care of the property, they face eviction.

If they want to keep their voucher, they have 90 days to find a new home. The alternative for many is homelessness.

Tenant 35-year-old Antweania Brown said that to keep warm this winter, she had to keep her stove on constantly, heat pots of water and huddle under blankets with her cats before her heat was fixed.

“We fell through the cracks,” Brown said.

Her two children, a 15-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter, haven’t been able to stay with her much this winter. If it’s too cold, they can’t come over.

“They want to come home,” Brown said. “They’re barely home. I can’t have my babies in there.”

Like Brown, Harris knows it’s humiliating when family arrives at the home.

He knows that ceiling in his bedroom will cave eventually.

Pieces of dingy popcorn ceiling barely cling above his bed. He can see where maintenance attempted to paint over the damage and tried to tape it up.

When he first moved into one of Nob Hill’s units three years ago, he was glad to have four walls and a roof over his head. Harris had spent the last six months homeless, sleeping on friends’ couches. So he didn’t notice the problems with his ceiling.

Then the tape gave out.

He didn’t notice the growing hole in his living room ceiling until water dripped on his daughter while she sat on the couch. That leak, while not as dramatic in the one in the bedroom, has still ruined his couch, he said.

“It’s embarrassing,” Harris said. “But I have to keep a smile on my face.”

His heat was out for four months this winter. In the middle of December, he filed a maintenance request but it took weeks for it to be fixed. Harris kept his stove on all day to stay warm.

“No holidays have I been happy,” Harris said. Not Thanksgiving. Not New Year’s Day. Not Christmas, he said.

And he doesn’t expect a happy birthday in March.

The housing authority receives funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the housing choice vouchers.

KM-T.E.H. Realty began operating in Missouri in 2013, according to secretary of state records.

Edwin Lowndes, executive director of the housing authority, said there have been voucher residents in Nob Hill for years.

Nob Hill has 269 units. The housing authority conducted an inspection of 83 voucher-funded units in November and December. Each one failed. The organization then gave T.E.H. Realty a list of the issues to fix within 30 days of a second inspection.

“Over 80 percent of those failed as well which meant they’re just not taking care of the property,” Lowndes said.

According to the housing authority, landlords with voucher-paying families are obligated to provide “decent, safe, and sanitary housing.”

The housing authority, Lowndes said, pulled all funding from Nob Hill. “That way we’re not using public money to pay an owner who’s not fulfilling their responsibilities.”

Lowndes said some units failed for critical issues and others failed for non-critical issues, ranging from toilets not draining properly to broken door handles.

In November, he said, the housing authority met with one of the owners. Since that November meeting, they haven’t had any communication. They have had “sporadic” communication with other management team members, usually when inspectors have been on site.

Lowndes said the property needs a landlord who is going to pay attention.

In January 2019, the Poverty & Race Research Action Council published a report about where families with children use housing vouchers in the 50 largest metropolitan areas.

According to the nonprofit, the census tract showed Nob Hill apartments is located in an area with a poverty rate of 35 percent and a 60 percent share of people of color.

Housing vouchers in Kansas City are concentrated in high poverty areas (with more than 30 percent living in poverty) and in areas of the city with a greater diverse population.

In the Kansas City metro, just 9 percent of voucher- assisted families are placed in high-opportunity neighborhoods.

And according to that study, 55 percent of low-income renter households of color are in minority-concentrated areas.

“There’s a history of government-supported segregation throughout the United States,” said Phil Tegeler, president of Poverty & Race Research Action Council. “The problem today is we have a lot of policies that perpetuate those kinds of segregation. It’s very hard to undo.”

Sitting on a chair in his two-bedroom apartment, Harris said Nob Hill tenants shouldn’t have to worry about their heat not being on when they’ve paid rent. A sign outside the property advertises “free heat.”

Harris said if he could afford to pack up and move immediately, he would. But scraping together hundreds of dollars for a deposit and application fee for a new apartment is proving difficult.

He said he feels he is walking on thin ice and frequently checks his front door for an eviction letter. Harris doesn’t know where he might live next, though he did receive a new voucher from the housing authority and help with a $35 application fee for an apartment near Kauffman Stadium from the Community Assistance Council.

The housing authority said families have been given vouchers to take with them to another apartment.

On Feb. 6, the Community Assistance Council, a south side nonprofit, hosted a meeting a mile from Nob Hill to help residents find resources such as access to attorneys or where to find help with a deposit.

Representatives from the Community Assistance Council, Housing Authority of Kansas City, Kansas City Police Department, the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom and Evergy were there. Six people were in the audience, not all of them residents.

Brown, the most vocal attendee, voiced her frustration with what is happening to her and other tenants.

“I feel like a refugee,” she told organizers. “Nobody’s respecting that I’m a person.”

Brown told The Star that there’s mold on her ceiling. And last summer, there were times she couldn’t stay at home because the air conditioning didn’t work.

She’s struggled to find resources for moving.

Another tenant, Catrice Echols, showed The Star a video of her ceiling that had fallen down, spreading insulation over her couch and shattering her fish tank. She had to live with her cousin for a week after.

While management ultimately repaired the ceiling, cracks in the ceiling are still visible, Echols said. She has lived at Nob Hill for two years.

The floor in her kitchen is bulging from water damage. Her downstairs neighbor told her that Echols’ kitchen sink was dripping into her apartment.

Echols said management tried to make the water damage seem like her fault.

She said she has to move by the end of February.

Few of the residents know where they will be living next, or where they will find the money to get there.

Brown said that for her to not be liable for the eviction, she has to move immediately.

She said they’ve only heard one question from management since the housing authority pulled funding: Where’s the rent?

Echols struggled like many with money problems.

“I don’t know how to feel,” Echols said. “I’m still trying to figure out it out. We still got to come up with the deposit money and move out.”

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