Gina Chiala, the executive director and co-founder at the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, speaks at a rally in support the Tenants’ Right to Counsel ordinance on Dec. 1, 2021, at city hall in Kansas City, Missouri. (Heartland Center)
A stack of boxes sitting in attorney Gina Chiala’s garage reminds her of how devastating evictions can be on families.
A woman had called her in 2014, a couple years before Chiala co-founded the Heartland Center For Jobs and Freedom nonprofit law group to provide legal support to the movement of fast-food workers fighting for a living wage.
“She was evicted from her house,” Chiala said of the fast-food worker and movement participant. “She didn’t have anywhere to put her stuff … and then she never was able to regain her footing in a way where she came back and got it.”
It was a struggle she’d heard over and over from the fast-food workers who were striking for a living wage. Being focused on consumer and employment law, Chiala didn’t know how to help them navigate eviction proceedings.
“I tried to find attorneys to help them,” she said. “And what I concluded is that there really weren’t any.”
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.
But that’s about to change in Kansas City, thanks to the research and coalition-building that Chiala and her Heartland Center team helped lead this year.
On Dec. 9, the city council for Kansas City, Missouri, unanimously passed one of the most aggressive “right to counsel” ordinances in the country to ensure any Kansas City resident facing an eviction has the right to an attorney, similar to public defenders in criminal cases. It also establishes a committee of seven tenants in Kansas City that will oversee the implementation of the program.
It will cost around $2.5 million a year, Chiala said, which largely will come from federal COVID-relief funds. By June 2022, no Kansas City resident will have to face an eviction without an attorney.
“It’s going to make Kansas City a more humane place,” Chiala said.
While Heartland was able to provide statistics and insight on representing tenants in eviction court, Chiala said the power behind the right-to-counsel campaign came from organizers with Stand Up KC workers movement and the grassroots group KC Tenants that created a united front.
Sabrina Davis, an organizer with KC Tenants, said that the first time she landed in eviction court, it was because she complained to her landlord about “the awful living conditions,” even though she was paying her rent on time.
“I had no representation then, and I lost,” Davis testified at a Dec. 8. council hearing. “Six years later, I was back in eviction court — different landlord, worse problems. I had representation this time, and I won. Right to counsel would save the city millions of dollars by reducing evictions annually and preventing homelessness.”
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, 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.”
But 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 — in mass,” Chiala said.
Chiala and her colleagues decided to talk to people coming out of the courthouse to see if they understood what had happened in the eviction proceeding.
“A lot of them would say, ‘Everything’s gonna be OK because they said they’re going to work with me,’ ” she said.
They didn’t realize that the eviction judgment in their hands meant that law enforcement officers could remove them from their homes after 10 days, Chiala said. From what she observed, judges had been trying to “soften the blow” on the tenants by telling them that the judgment isn’t final for 10 days. And if the tenants could get something worked out with the landlord, then everything would be OK.
“But there’s nothing to be worked out with the landlord,” she said, “so this was just kind of a fiction and a false sense of hope because the judges, I’m sure, didn’t like what was happening.”
The common stories they heard were people who had gotten in a car accident and had been hospitalized, or people unexpectedly laid off. For low-wage workers, they didn’t have the financial reserves for something to go wrong, she said. She would talk to moms holding the hands of children and dads holding their infants, who would break down when they learned what the judgment meant, she said.
They immediately started studying that area of law and researching the process. Without any resources or funding, they decided the best thing they could do was try to provide more information to tenants on the process and ways they could negotiate with their landlords.
“We went down there and just started to shout at everybody, as they went into court and said, ‘Don’t say you owe rent on the record, just ask for a continuance. Call our number, and we’ll explain how the process works,’” she said.
After a year of this work, they did a survey to get feedback from tenants they’d helped. Many told them that Heartland’s efforts were insufficient.
“They said we needed you in court,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to go through this by ourselves. The situation was screaming right to counsel.”
‘Enshrined in law’
In 2018 and 2019, they began floating the idea of a citywide right-to-counsel initiative with elected officials and even 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 the mayor and Councilwoman Andrea Bough, the legislator 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. 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 attorneys represented at least 320 people facing evictions, and almost all of those cases ended in dismissals with the client and their families staying in their homes, said Heartland attorney John Bonacorsi.
When Bonacorsi was hired in February 2021, it was a shock to see how quickly judges were handing down eviction judgements in the 16th Circuit Court.
“I don’t think 30 seconds to a minute 30 is any exaggeration at all,” he said. “If folks went to the eviction dockets and just saw how they work, it’s really one of the cruelest things you could witness.”
And while Bonacorsi was successful in helping his clients, it was disheartening to see about 50 to 100 other people daily at the courthouse in Independence lose their homes. At the circuit’s Kansas City courthouse, it’s usually about 150 to 225 every Thursday on the eviction docket, but sometimes as high as 500.
People getting these judgments have defenses oftentimes, he said, including that the living conditions were deplorable or that the landlord hasn’t been responding to repeated complaints.
“But no one was there to help them with that,” Bonacorsi said. “It’s encouraging to know that, hopefully, it will no longer be luck or chance whether someone will have an attorney. But it’ll be a right as enshrined in law.”
A universal right
Unlike the courts in the St. Louis area that issued local eviction moratorium orders, the two courthouses in the 16th Circuit Court never stopped evicting people. The federal moratorium on evictions only protected people who submitted a declaration form, which was a confusing process for many tenants.
“We tried to get the courts to issue moratoriums,” Chiala said. “We’ve tried to get the courts to do diversion, which the courts are equipped to do, and were just not able to even strike up a dialogue with them. Right to counsel was the next obvious step.”
Compared to other right-to-counsel programs, Kansas City’s stands out for a number of reasons, said Tara Raghuveer, a leader with the grassroots housing advocacy group KC Tenants.
First, it’s universal and not dependent on a tenant’s income. The new program will help the 8,000 families that are impacted by evictions in Kansas City each year, she said.
“We did not want to create a bureaucratic nightmare, where tenants would have to demonstrate their need for counsel, when they’re in the midst of a crisis,” Raghuveer said. “To our knowledge, it’s the only universal right-to-counsel policy in the Midwest.”
And it’s also among the few in the country. The seven-member tenant oversight committee is another proud piece for KC Tenants, she said, which will ensure that tenants have a hand in the program’s implementation going forward.
The legislation also wasn’t written in a “closed-door room” by lawyers and policymakers, she said, but by tenants who themselves have lived the experience of being in eviction court.
At the beginning of the year, KC Tenants launched an intense “Zero Eviction January” campaign, where they protested and disrupted eviction proceedings every week because they felt they had exhausted every other option.
“The courts were still hearing and executing evictions, even in the midst of a pandemic, even in the midst of winter,” she said. “To us, that was unacceptable.”
Now the year is ending with a change to the legal system that will impact thousands, Raghuveer said. The Heartland Center’s legal knowledge and experience representing clients, she said, was a big part in making the legislation a reality.
“They’ve demonstrated to us what could be possible,” she said, “and now will be in Kansas City, when tenants do have a lawyer fighting by their side.”
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