‘Today Kansas City Made History': City Council Adopts Tenants Bill of Rights

The council’s quick action was a victory for KC Tenants, which formed earlier this year and assembled tenant leaders from across the city. But the group lost a key battle: protections for low-income tenants who pay rent using housing vouchers.


The Kansas City Star

By Allison Kite

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Nearly every member of the standing-room-only crowd at City Hall erupted in cheers Thursday when the Kansas City Council voted to pass its first-ever tenants bill of rights.

Members of the advocacy group KC Tenants, clad in yellow shirts, cheered and chanted, “This is what democracy looks like!” and celebrated their milestone victory.

“Today Kansas City made history passing its first-ever tenants bill of rights,” said Tara Raghuveer, who founded KC Tenants. Raghuveer said the group also made history by advancing legislation written by tenants themselves.

“So we think of this as good policy that was made the right way, with the people impacted leading every step,” Raghuveer said.

The vote capped off weeks of public debate and negotiation among the tenants group, landlords and members of the City Council. The council’s Special Committee on Housing Policy unanimously endorsed the legislation -- one ordinance and one resolution -- last week.

Mayor Quinton Lucas, who worked with the group and officials in his office on the legislation, said he was “elated” by the council vote, calling it “one step” in making change.

I’m a renter. Lots of people are, and frankly this gives somebody a voice now in a way they didn’t have before,” Lucas said.

Robert Long, president of Landlords Inc., said the bill of rights had become “far more tolerable” as the result of amendments the committee adopted last week. But he said he and other landlords were taking stock of their business models and considering whether they wanted to continue doing business in Kansas City.

“I bought a house in Kansas City today. I actually just closed on it,” Long said, “And I’ve never been so unexcited to purchase a home in my life.”

‘Our Work Is Not Done’

The council’s quick action -- taking the proposal from introduction to passage in six weeks -- was a victory for KC Tenants, which formed earlier this year and assembled tenant leaders from across the city. But the group lost a key battle: protections for low-income tenants who pay rent using housing vouchers, including the federal Section 8 program.

“Our work is not done. There are still tenants who are not protected by the legislation passed today,” Raghuveer said, adding that the group is eager to push for those protections next year.

KC Tenants’ original proposal would have barred landlords from discriminating against tenants based solely on their source of income -- as long as it was lawful. That, they argue, would open more options for tenants who pay rent with the help of vouchers. Often they can’t find landlords willing to rent to them. Landlords argued City Hall shouldn’t force them to participate in programs they feel are rife with red tape and bureaucratic headaches.

In a committee meeting last week, council members reached a compromise. They added language saying the city would not require landlords “to participate in an otherwise voluntary benefit or subsidy program.”

That wording didn’t satisfy KC Tenants or Brandon Weiss, an associate professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Weiss commended Lucas’ work on the proposal but said in a statement that there is “still more work to be done” on source of income protections.

The new wording, Weiss said, “seems to muddy the question of whether landlords who do not already accept Section 8 vouchers would be required to do so under the ordinance.

But requiring landlords, who otherwise may be inclined to reject voucher tenants, to accept them is the very purpose of these anti-discrimination laws. No such caveat language appears in the typical sort of source of income laws that we are seeing passed across the country -- laws that have been shown to significantly improve access to housing options for low-income households.”

According to the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, more than a dozen states have some sort of source of income provision, and most of those policies protect voucher recipients. About 75 cities have similar protections.

Jenay Manley, a leader in KC Tenants, said the language “pretty much contradicted” the idea of the proposal, which would help her. Manley struggled for weeks to find a landlord who would take her Section 8 voucher, to the point that she had to miss work to hunt for an apartment.

“In one sentence we were written out of support and protection,” Manley said.

Lucas disagreed that the amendment “undermines” the intended protections.

What it suggests ... is this -- that the landlord cannot judge solely based upon someone’s source of income,” Lucas said. “I think that is an amazing step for us.”

Long said that amendment helps landlords.

“For somebody who didn’t understand that program and didn’t want to have to be involved with the additional bureaucracy that comes with that program, that’s a pretty big change that they won’t be forced to do so,” Long said.

Lucas said, “Frankly, I’m proud of it. I think it’s a great step.”

Two Pieces of Legislation

The tenant rights package is made of two pieces of legislation. One, citing local, state and federal law, distills in one location a list of rights already afforded to tenants, including rights to habitability, freedom from discrimination and retaliation, and the right to organize and collectively bargain.

An accompanying ordinance requires that landlords give 24 hours’ notice before entering properties and provide tenants with a means to get a utility estimate for the property. Landlords are also required to provide a copy of the bill of rights. The ordinance also bars discrimination against prospective tenants solely because of a prior arrest, conviction or eviction.

Under the bill of rights, Kansas City would create a new board for appeals and other rental housing issues.

Long said the creation of that agency, which he noted would be the fourth city agency governing landlords, wasn’t favorable to homeowners.

Both proposals passed committee unanimously last week after a long, contentious evening meeting held at the Mohart Multipurpose Center near Linwood Boulevard and The Paseo. Lucas said while that meeting wasn’t perfect, it was set up to allow more community members to engage on the issue, and he anticipated having more public discussions with a similar format.

Further protections for tenants are likely to come up in council meetings next year. KC Tenants also wants to see Kansas City offer free counsel to help low-income tenants facing eviction.

The council will likely work on getting more funds for affordable housing written into the city’s budget next year.

Councilwoman Heather Hall, 1st District, was the sole vote against the main resolution, which passed 12-1.

Hall and Councilman Lee Barnes, 5th District, voted against the accompanying ordinance, and Councilwoman Teresa Loar missed the vote. The rest of the council voted in favor.

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