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Renters’ rights: Kansas City tenants’ right to counsel upends landlords with pro se litigation pattern

Chloe Murdock//December 20, 2021

Renters’ rights: Kansas City tenants’ right to counsel upends landlords with pro se litigation pattern

Chloe Murdock//December 20, 2021

KC Tenants organizers and supporters pack a Kansas City Council meeting on Dec. 8, as a tenants’ right-to-counsel ordinance was debated. The next day, the city council unanimously approved the ordinance. Photo courtesy of KC Tenants

The approximate 10 percent of landlords who represent themselves in eviction proceedings must now scramble for their own lawyers. The Kansas City Council unanimously voted to approve an ordinance that starts a program to fund legal representation for the city’s tenants by June 2022.

Councilmember Andrea Bough introduced the right to counsel ordinance, and KC Tenants, Stand Up KC and the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom assisted in the language of the measure. Heartland Center Executive Director Gina Chiala said that the ordinance’s opposition “was pretty mild,” and that three attorneys who represent landlords also supported the ordinance.

KC Regional Housing Alliance President Stacey Johnson-Cosby said during public testimony before the council’s Neighborhood, Planning and Development Committee that the funds should go toward rental assistance instead of paying attorneys.

Court records show that as a pro se litigant, Johnson-Cosby and her husband have filed their own rent and possession and landlord complaints 12 times since 2005. Since their last litigation in 2016, Johnson-Cosby said they created an LLC for their 21 apartments and must hire an attorney for future cases.

While Johnson-Cosby said tenants facing abusive landlords should have representation, she said it’s frustrating to hire an attorney when it used to take an afternoon by herself. The couple plans to sell their nine Kansas City rental properties.

Chiala said the Heartland Center has previously taken landlords to task who filed as a pro se litigant for rental properties that were actually managed by an LLC, and the landlords had to re-file as such. Chiala also has encountered landlords who can afford an attorney but chose to cut costs by not hiring one.

Johnson-Cosby said that tenants don’t need lawyers to negotiate, because she does this herself with her tenants without issue.

“We as landlords see eviction as the last resort,” Johnson-Cosby said.

Bough said that a tenant’s attorney can reveal factors that explain why a tenant can’t or won’t pay rent, including a landlord not fixing the property.

“I’ve heard landlords say this, ‘It’s cut and dry. If you don’t pay your rent, we can evict you.’” Bough said. “And I think overwhelmingly landlords do win.”

Bough said that lawyers can also connect the tenant with resources like utility assistance and work with the landlord toward resolution, like negotiating payment plans or more time for the tenant to find new housing.

The program’s estimated $2.5 million annual cost is based on covering 20 percent of the estimated 8,000 evictions that are filed annually in the city.

In the meantime, ten lawyers from the Heartland Center, Legal Aid of Western Missouri and the University of Missouri-Kansas City are continuing to provide pro bono legal assistance to tenants. In response to the 2020 pandemic, Kansas City funded its first three attorneys to represent tenants in eviction defense.

Chiala said the unanimous vote was supported by data collected since the city funded those first few attorneys, as well as the 12 cities around the nation who have already enacted similar ordinances. For example, Philadelphia determined that for every dollar spent on its program, the city saves $13 otherwise spent on providing aid to people who have been evicted and become homeless.

“The programs end up paying for themselves many times over,” Chiala said.

Because of the support behind the ordinance, including existing lawyers, Chiala said that the ordinance is one of the strongest in the nation.

The city manager Brian Platt must find funding in the next three months and execute a contract with nonprofit legal services by June. Federal pandemic funding will last for the program’s first few years.

The ordinance also requires the city and property owners to notify tenants of their right to counsel. The city must reach out to tenants within 10 days to remind tenants of their rights and steps to gain counsel.

The city is also hiring a tenants’ legal services and assistance director to coordinate city staffing, intake tenants in one place and connect them with legal services. The mayor is tasked to appoint a Tenants’ Right to Counsel Committee of seven tenants and non-voting members from legal organizations for oversight. The director and this committee will give an annual report to the mayor, City Council and city manager each September. 

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