April Shabbaz lives in a Kansas City apartment with her brother, son, daughter and 20-year-old grandson.
All adults have low-paying jobs. Last fall, one of them suddenly lost his job and the housekeeping fell behind on the rent.
“Once you’ve fallen behind on something, it’s extremely difficult to catch up because…you always have your new bills coming in,” she said.
Shabbaz applied for rental and utility assistance and ended up on a waiting list. At the same time, its landlord filed an eviction request and Shabbaz did not receive a court summons until two days before his hearing date.
She was able to quickly get the support of a free lawyer from the nonprofit lawyer group Heartland Center For Jobs and Freedom, who had her court date postponed to allow her housing assistance applications to go through.
Shabbaz was able to stay at home. But she knows a lot of people haven’t been so lucky.
“If you’re already a low-wage worker… you don’t have money to hire a lawyer,” she said. “These owners, they have lawyers. So you are in court and you have no one to represent you. You are basically railroading.
Nationwide, 90% of landlords have access to attorneys during eviction proceedings, compared to 1% of tenants, according to estimates by the National Coalition for the Civil Right to an Attorney. It’s a trend Missouri is also following, supporters say.
After years of pressure from Kansas City housing advocates to address the issue, 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 Eastern Missouri are now dedicated to representing people like Shabbaz.
Since the program took effect on June 1, lawyers have collectively taken on 139 new cases. And now, no Kansas City resident has to face eviction without a lawyer.
“The right to an attorney is one of the best things that can happen to tenants, especially low-wage workers,” said Shabbaz, a member of the Missouri Workers Center advocacy group that lobbied for the program. “Because 98% of the time it’s a low-wage worker who gets kicked out.”
The right to a lawyer ordinance was passed unanimously by the city council in December. Yet, despite its successes, its implementation has had some hiccups.
Some of the city’s outreach efforts have yet to begin. The program still does not have a permanent director. And an advisory committee of seven Kansas City mayor-appointed tenants will meet for the first time next week — months late.
“The swearing in might have taken months,” said committee member Sabrina Davis, a leader of the KC tenant advocacy group who helped draft the order, “but now that I’m here, you bet your bottom dollar that I’m going to hold this town accountable for realizing our rights.
City-wide Right to Counsel initiative begins
Heartland originally 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 colleague felt compelled after hearing workers about the threat of eviction to go to Kansas City eviction court and observe.
“That’s when we saw four courtrooms simultaneously evicting tenants in massive numbers,” she said, “and they’re not represented by counsel.”
Still, homeowners’ attorneys would be there representing “giant piles” of eviction claims one after another, she said.
“People walk into court with a roof over their heads, and they walk out evicted – en masse,” Chiala said.
In 2018 and 2019, they started to pitch the idea of a citywide right to a lawyer initiative with elected officials and other movement leaders, but no one was able to make it happen. campaign a top priority, Chiala said.
In January 2020, Chiala and other lawyers presented the possibility of right to counsel legislation to Mayor Quinton Lucas and Councilwoman Andrea Bough, who would champion the policy later that year. Both balked at the cost of a comprehensive program to give everyone the right to public defense, Chiala said.
However, just before the pandemic hit in March, the city agreed to pay three attorneys, two with Heartland and one with the nonprofit Legal Aid of Western Missouri. These lawyers ended up preventing evictions during the pandemic, starting in June 2020.
And it gave them the opportunity to collect data on the impact of state-funded attorneys on the outcomes of eviction cases, Chiala said.
Since June 2020, lawyers from Heartland and Legal Aid have represented hundreds of people facing eviction, and nearly all of those cases have ended in layoffs, with the client and his family staying at home.
Supported by federal relief funds
The new program will cost about $2.5 million a year, Chiala said, much of which will come from federal COVID relief funds at this time. The city is paying $700,000, and the remaining costs will come from federal dollars channeled through the Missouri Housing Development Corporation.
As of July 8, MHDC has awarded $6.1 million in federal relief funds to 38 groups across the state to help with housing case management, legal services and ensuring families get help with accommodation before being evicted.
Kansas City is one of the few cities where attorneys take an active role in working with housing assistance lenders, such as United Way, to secure payments directly from landlords.
“We can administer the colony,” 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 funds are received in time to stop the eviction.
While Heartland has an attorney who works on eviction cases, the firm’s primary role is to train UMKC and legal aid attorneys. They had their first practice last week.
“The lawyers were really enthusiastic,” she said, “and I think we have a very good army of tenants’ rights lawyers.”
Kansas City averages 9,000 evictions each year, according to Harvard University’s Eviction Lab Tracker. However, only about a third of eviction cases end in the hearing phase – where a lawyer would be needed, Chiala said.
Lawyers for the program have yet to turn down anyone who has requested the services.
Currently, when a person receives notification of their eviction proceedings, the court also sends information about the Right to Counsel program. Heartland and other volunteers still attend eviction days and catch people before they go to eviction court to tell them they have the right to a lawyer.
If the people have not yet received a “continuation” from the judge, then the lawyers can intervene. But they cannot help them if they are already in the trial phase.
That’s why the city needs to set up an outreach team, Chiala said, and send information about the program to people on eviction lists.
As for outreach, Jane Brown, the city’s acting program director and director of housing, said the city has been advertising the program “widely” since June 1.
Regarding mailing the notices, Brown said the city reached an agreement with the Jackson County Circuit Court in early June 2022. Each week, the circuit court provided the names of the people who have been sued 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 evictee,” she said.
The Clay County Court declined to enter into a similar agreement to provide the names, and the Platte County Court’s request is still pending, she said.
Brown said she was “exploring other options to help Kansas citizens in Northland who are being evicted in the absence of a similar evictees list in Jackson County.”
Next steps: bringing the owners to justice
It’s been a long road since Chiala and her team started attending eviction court days in 2017.
“It’s still offensive that so many people are being subjected to the potential loss of their homes,” Chiala said, “but it’s very exciting that the courts are now teeming with tenants’ rights lawyers.”
However, the right to a lawyer is only the first step, she said.
Almost a year ago, the electricity company Evergy came to take the meter in front of Shabbaz’s house, leaving his family without air conditioning or heating.
When she called Evergy last August, she discovered that its owner had known for 14 months that he needed to carry out repairs on the meter.
“The apartments are responsible for these repairs, and they never made them,” she said. “It’s been a year now since that counter disappeared.”
Her family had to live in the living room during the cold winter months to stay warm. Having to buy heaters and air conditioners themselves, with no reimbursement from its landlord, has contributed to Shabbaz falling behind on its rent.
However, its owner filed an eviction request. Her Heartland attorney was able to provide evidence in eviction court about living conditions, which helped her win her case and have it expunged from her case.
Cases like Shabbaz inspired Heartland to create a new initiative to fund legal defense for tenants who want to fight these poor housing conditions in court.
“We are looking at a habitability program, with the aim of getting landlords to comply with the habitability law,” she said, “because two-thirds of low-income tenants have living conditions. unlivable housing. And so that’s where we’re going next.
This story originally appeared on the Missouri Independent.