They’ve protested and even shut down courts, and now a coalition of Kansas City organizations and housing advocates are taking their case to a judge hoping to halt evictions during the pandemic.
Tenant advocates and several other groups sent a public letter to Jackson County Presiding Judge David Byrn and Mayor Quinton Lucas on Thursday, demanding they reinstate the Jackson County eviction moratorium for at least six months.
Housing advocacy group KC Tenants says over 361,000 Missouri households are currently unable to make rent and are at risk of eviction. With COVID-19 cases continuing to rise, they say they are worried about the impact that a surge of evictions would have on public health.
Barbara Jeffries, a tenant facing eviction in Jackson County, said extending the moratorium could be a matter of life or death for her.
“I'm 65 years old. I don't want to be on the street and I don’t want to be in a hotel. I am scared. I don't know who was in that room before me and I don't know what they had,” Jeffries said.
With expanded unemployment benefits ending last month, Jeffries said there needs to be more aid for tenants struggling to pay rent because of loss of work.
KC Tenant’s Krisi Eiland said she was evicted from her home after taking a lower-paying job when the company she worked for filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.
“I fell behind, and as soon as the moratorium was lifted, I was served an eviction notice. Now, my kids and I are homeless,” Eiland said.
The Jackson County eviction moratorium expired May 31, and KC Tenants say 1,600 evictions have been heard by the courts since then.
Asked for comment on the letter, a court spokesperson, Valerie Hartman, said the court will continue to enforce evictions until the Missouri governor or U.S. president issue a moratorium. The court has the responsibility to enforce the law currently in place, she said.
Members of the coalition say by resuming evictions in person, the courts are risking COVID-19 exposure. They also believe that conducting evictions by teleconference is a violation of due process rights.
“It isn’t safe to come to court. Tenants are being forced to choose between defending themselves at trial – putting their lives at risk – or staying away from the courthouse and being evicted by default,” said Gina Chiala, an attorney with Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom.
The groups are also demanding that Lucas and other Kansas City council members prioritize prevention programs to keep tenants in their homes, and invest in affordable housing.
In response to the letter, Lucas says no one should be evicted from their home because of COVID-19, but that the city is unable to freeze or cancel rent because of state law.
Through CARES Act funding, the city has provided $1 million in emergency rental and utility assistance to Clay County residents in Kansas City. The city is still waiting for the rest of the funds from Jackson County.
“We need Jackson County to provide the remaining funding we requested so we can quickly distribute these resources to those who need them,” says Lucas.
The Rev. Holly McKissick with Peace Church UCC says these changes should last beyond the duration of the pandemic.
“Kansas City has been shaped by unjust housing policies for more than a century. The very people who have been disadvantaged for generations are now receiving the least help through the current crisis,” said McKissick.