New policy ensures KC tenants facing eviction have lawyers

After experiencing eviction, Kenya Banks joined the Right to Counsel grassroots campaign to secure legal aid funding for people facing eviction. She has shared her eviction story, making the connection between low wages and evictions and winning hearts and minds for the Right to Counsel movement.

It is 2016 and Kenya Banks is standing in front of Division 27 at the Jackson County Courthouse. She doesn’t have an attorney; she doesn’t have a plan. She only knows that her landlord is suing her for eviction and she is hoping the court will exercise some mercy. Kenya, a lifelong fast-food worker, fell behind on rent because her wages are too low, her hours too unpredictable, and she doesn’t have any paid sick days off. She enters the courtroom, her case is called, and she is evicted in short order.

This day is etched into Kenya’s mind. She remembers how heavy the courtroom door was. She remembers feeling sick to her stomach as she looked across the courtroom and saw dozens of dejected looking tenants — most of whom were black women like herself. She remembers the judge’s voice calling her name. She remembers her heart pounding as he delivered the order that would render her homeless.

So, when a Stand Up KC organizer asked Kenya if she wanted to join together with other fast-food workers to win $15 an hour and a voice on the job, she agreed and devoted herself to the movement. The Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom would get to know Kenya during a six-week storytelling course the Heartland Center held for Stand Up KC workers. Kenya would ultimately tell her eviction story to audiences big and small — making the connection between low wages and evictions and winning hearts and minds for the movement.

But Kenya’s story was not at all unique. When Stand Up KC workers were asked at a mass meeting how many had been evicted, nearly everyone raised their hand. This is the reason why we became immersed in the eviction crisis plaguing low-wage workers.

This day is etched into Kenya’s mind. She remembers how heavy the courtroom door was. She remembers feeling sick to her stomach as she looked across the courtroom and saw dozens of dejected looking tenants — most of whom were black women like herself. She remembers the judge’s voice calling her name. She remembers her heart pounding as he delivered the order that would render her homeless.

In 2017, the Heartland Center went to the courthouse and watched the eviction dockets. Hundreds of tenants were being evicted by four courts simultaneously. Almost none had lawyers. All lost their cases. Few understood what had happened. We knew this because we began talking to tenants as they emerged from court, explained the paperwork they held (“This is an eviction judgment and law enforcement will be able to remove you and your family from the home in 10 days so it is important to find emergency shelter”), and tenants fell into states of emotional distress in front of them. 

These tenants and the workers of Stand Up KC propelled our Heartland staff of two into action. 

Without funding and without much of a plan, we improvised a self-help program, joined forces with Legal Aid of Western Missouri, and began intervening as tenants walked into the courtroom. They made sure tenants knew how to slow the process down and gave them a hotline number to call for free legal advice. Before long, Heartland’s hotline was overwhelmed with calls. 

About a year into the work, the surveyed tenants and tenants said the self-help clinic was good to have but it fell woefully short. They needed Heartland to represent them in court. That is when we began advocating for full, formal representation for all tenants. But these programs cost money, and the city was reluctant to commit. There would need to be a full-fledged grassroots campaign to win.

In 2020, we won a modest contract from the city and another one from United Way, allowing us to represent tenants in court. Over the course of a year, they handled roughly 300 eviction cases and nearly all of the tenants represented remained housed and free from eviction. One of those tenants was Kenya Banks, whose hours were cut, causing her to fall behind on rent again. Only this time, she did not have to appear in court and the eviction was dismissed pursuant to a settlement agreement. She remained housed.

Attorneys stop evictions by asserting defenses and negotiating settlements. And, early on, we carved out a critical relationship with United Way to fast-track charitable dollars to the tenants who needed it. Having a lawyer means the difference between being housed and being on the streets. Our work proved this.

Then, during the pandemic KC Tenants organized and brought wide public attention to the eviction crisis, placing the issue front and center in the public debate. Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act and issued broad emergency rental assistance and funding for eviction defense. All of these actions converged and convinced us that the time was right to launch an ambitious campaign for Right to Counsel. 

Workers and tenants led and informed the Right to Counsel grassroots campaign. Members masked up and attended city council meeting to advocate for Kansas City to provide legal representation to tenants facing eviction.

We pitched the campaign to Health Forward and to our movement partners, the Missouri Workers Center, Stand Up KC and KC Tenants. Ultimately, everyone agreed to join forces and make Right to Counsel a reality. 

On December 20, 2021, Kansas City became the 13th city in the country to pass Right to Counsel and ensure that all tenants sued by their landlords have lawyers. Kenya Banks helped lead the campaign.

This is not just a win for Kansas City. The movement is contagious. For example, Geoff Jolley of LISC (editor’s note: Mr. Jolley serves as secretary of Health Forward’s board of directors), which supported Right to Counsel, is now advocating for the policy nationwide. In the meantime, the Heartland Center is working with partners on the Kansas side to expand legal representation for tenants there too. 

This is what systemic change — informed and led by workers and tenants — truly looks like. 

Health Forward is proud to have contributed to this victory that addresses tenant rights through policy change.


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