April Shabbaz lives in a Kansas City apartment with her brother, son, daughter and 20-year-old grandson.
All of the adults have low-wage jobs. This past fall, one of them abruptly lost their job, and the household fell behind on rent.
“Once you get behind on something, it is extremely hard to catch up because… you still have your new bills that are coming in,” she said.
Shabbaz applied for rental and utility assistance and ended up on a waiting list. At the same time, her landlord filed for an eviction, and Shabbaz didn’t receive the court summons until two days before her hearing date.
She was able to quickly get support from a free lawyer from the Heartland Center For Jobs and Freedom nonprofit law group, who got her court date postponed to allow her rental assistance applications to go through.
Shabbaz was able to stay in her home. But she knows many people haven’t been so lucky.
“If you’re already a low-wage worker…you don’t have money to get a lawyer,” she said. “These landlords, they have lawyers. So you’re standing there in court, and you don’t have nobody to represent you. You’re basically being railroaded.”
Across the country, 90% of landlords have access to attorneys during eviction proceedings, compared to 1% of tenants, according to estimates from the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel. It’s a trend that Missouri follows as well, advocates say.
After years of Kansas City housing advocates pushing to address the problem, the city launched its new right-to-counsel program on June 1, where 12 attorneys from Heartland, the UMKC Truman Fellows program and Legal Aid of Western Missouri are now dedicated to representing people like Shabbaz.
Since the program went into effect on June 1, the attorneys collectively have taken on 139 new cases. And now, no Kansas City resident has to face an eviction without an attorney.
“Right to counsel is one of the best things that can happen for tenants, especially low-wage workers,” said Shabbaz, who is a member of advocacy group Missouri Workers Center that pushed for the program. “Because 98% of the time it’s some low-wage worker that’s being evicted.”
The right-to-counsel ordinance passed the city council unanimously in December. Yet despite its successes, its implementation has seen some snags.
Some of the city’s outreach efforts have yet to begin. The program still doesn’t have a permanent director. And an advisory committee of seven mayor-appointed Kansas City tenants will meet for the first time next week – months behind schedule.
“The swearing-in might have been months overdue,” said committee member Sabrina Davis, a leader with KC Tenants advocacy group that helped draft the ordinance, “but now that I’m in, you bet your bottom dollar I’m going to hold this city accountable to delivering our rights.”
Beginnings of citywide right-to-counsel initiative
Heartland initially grew out of the Stand Up KC movement of low-wage workers fighting for $15 an hour, focusing primarily on unemployment and consumer rights cases.
In 2017, Heartland co-founder Gina Chiala and a co-worker felt compelled after hearing the workers talk about the threat of evictions to go down to eviction court in Kansas City and observe.
“That’s when we saw four courtrooms evicting tenants simultaneously in really large numbers,” she said, “and they’re not represented by counsel.”
Yet, landlords’ attorneys would be there representing “giant stacks” of eviction filings one after the other, she said.
“People are walking in the court with a roof over their head, and they’re walking out evicted — en masse,” Chiala said.
In 2018 and 2019, they began floating the idea of a citywide right-to-counsel initiative with elected officials and other movement leaders, but no one was able to make the campaign a top priority, Chiala said.
In January 2020, Chiala and other attorneys presented the possibility of right-to-counsel legislation to Mayor Quinton Lucas and Councilwoman Andrea Bough, who would later champion the policy this year. Both balked at the cost of a full program to give everyone the right to public defense, Chiala said.
However, right before the pandemic hit in March, the city did agree to pay for three attorneys, two with Heartland and one with the nonprofit agency Legal Aid of Western Missouri. Those attorneys ended up preventing evictions during the pandemic, starting in June 2020.
And it provided them an opportunity to collect data on how publicly-funded attorneys impacted the outcomes of eviction cases, Chiala said.
Since June 2020, Heartland and Legal Aid attorneys represented hundreds of people facing evictions, and almost all of those cases ended in dismissals with the client and their families staying in their homes.
Backed by federal relief funds
The new program will cost around $2.5 million a year, Chiala said, which largely will come from federal COVID-relief funds for now. City is paying $700,000 and the remaining costs will come through federal dollars funneled through Missouri Housing Development Corporation.
As of July 8, MHDC has awarded $6.1 million in federal relief funds to 38 groups statewide assisting in housing case management, legal services and making sure families get rental assistance before they’re evicted.
Kansas City is among the few cities where attorneys are taking an active role in working with rental assistance funders, such as the United Way, to get payments directly to landlords.
“We can administer the settlement,” Chiala said. “So we’re not just waiting for the tenant to navigate a really difficult system. We have the ability to communicate directly with the funder to ensure that the funds are received in time to stop the eviction.”
While Heartland has one attorney that’s working on eviction cases, the firm’s main role is training the attorneys at UMKC and Legal Aid. They had their first training session last week.
“The attorneys were really enthusiastic,” she said, “and I think we’ve got a really good army of tenants rights lawyers.”
Kansas City has an average of 9,000 evictions every year, according to Harvard University’s Eviction Lab tracking. However only about a third of eviction cases end up at the hearing phase – where an attorney would be necessary, Chiala said.
The program’s attorneys have not had to turn away anyone who has requested the services yet.
Currently, when a person receives notification about their eviction proceedings, the court also sends information about the right-to-counsel program. Heartland and other volunteers are still attending eviction court days and catching people before they go into eviction court to tell them they have a right to an attorney.
If individuals haven’t already received a “continuance” from the judge yet, then the attorneys can intervene. But they can’t help them if they are already at the trial phase.
That’s why the city needs to have an outreach team in place, Chiala said, as well as send out information about the program to people on eviction dockets.
Regarding outreach, Jane Brown, the interim director for the program and the city’s housing director, said the city has been publicizing the program “extensively” since June 1.
Regarding mailing out notices, Brown said the city entered into an agreement with the Jackson County Circuit Court in early June 2022. On a weekly basis, the circuit court has been providing names of individuals, who have had eviction cases filed against them, she said.
“Names provided by Jackson County are entered into a computer system and one of three organizations (Legal Aid, Heartland Jobs and UMKC) is assigned to represent the individual who is being evicted,” she said.
The Clay County court declined to enter into a similar agreement to provide the names, and the Platte County court request is still pending, she said.
Brown said she is “exploring other options to assist Kansas Citians in the Northland who are being evicted in the absence of a list of evictees similar to Jackson County.”
Next steps: Taking landlords to court
It’s been a long road since Chiala and her team began attending eviction court days in 2017.
“It’s still offensive that so many people are subjected to the potential loss of their housing,” Chiala said, “but it’s very thrilling that the courts are now swarming with tenants rights attorneys.”
However, right-to-counsel is just the first step, she said.
Almost a year ago, Evergy electric company came and took the meter outside Shabbaz’s home – leaving her family with no air conditioning or heat.
When she called Evergy last August, she found out that her landlord had known for 14 months that they needed to complete repairs on the meter.
“The apartments are responsible for those repairs, and they never did them,” she said. “I’m going on a year now with this meter being gone.”
Her family had to live in the living room during the cold winter months to stay warm. Having to buy heaters and AC units themselves, without reimbursement from her landlord, contributed to Shabbaz falling behind on her rent.
Still, her landlord filed an eviction. Her Heartland attorney was able to provide evidence in eviction court about the living conditions, which helped her win her case and have it cleared from her record.
Cases like Shabbaz’s have inspired Heartland to begin creating a new initiative to fund legal defense for tenants who want to fight these poor housing conditions in court.
“We’re looking at a habitability program, in an effort to try to get landlords to comply with the law around habitability,” she said, “because two thirds of low-income tenants have unlivable housing conditions. And so that’s where we’re going next.”