City executes unprecedented agreement to save refugee tenants from eviction

Published: May. 1, 2023 at 10:48 PM CDT|Updated: May. 2, 2023 at 7:13 AM CDT
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KCTV) - A first-of-its-kind arrangement between Kansas City government and a property owner is giving a reprieve to some refugees and immigrants who were on the verge of being evicted.

KC Tenants organized, some city council members negotiated, and the measure passed on Friday.

A row of brick apartments at N. Lawn and Scarritt avenues appear to be vacant. Many windows and doors are covered with plywood. But in a courtyard, a group of older women sit in the sun, some children running up and down the sidewalk. They are among the last families living in the apartments, taking up eight units scattered from building to building.

They lived through numerous owners, frequent break-ins and poor living conditions. After a fire in January, they found out the building had been sold again, and the new owner was going to make improvements. It seemed like good news until they got eviction notices.

Tara Raghuveer is the director of KC Tenants, an organization which fights for tenant rights. Raghuveer they were told they had 30 days to sign new leases for $1,000 per month -- which is more than twice what most are paying -- or vacate.

She introduced us to some of the residents who are refugees from Burma who fled a civil war.

“This is Kadiza. She lives here with her husband Ka Led. He’s blind and bedridden, and she has a respiratory condition,” she said, moving from person-to-person as they flanked her. “They live with their son A Naing who drives a taxi cab.”

She also introduced us to Artemio Tepetlanco Barrera. An immigrant from Mexico, he takes 10 medications daily for a genetic kidney condition. He spoke to us through a translator.

“He is terminally ill, and he has to go through dialysis and can’t work,” the translator said. “So, he says, if he had the choice to afford anyplace else, he would have left.”

The temporary solution inked on Friday began to take shape after KC Tenants tried contacting the new owner, staged protests, then invited several city council members to meet the families.

“They were telling us about their life story and how they got here,” said First-District-At-Large Councilman Kevin O’Neill when he returned on Monday.

He described the conditions that prompted him and other council members to step in.

“These were mostly immigrants and refugees. And, they were living like they actually still lived in a third-world country,” O’Neill said. ”And, we should do better than that.”

The council and property owner came up with this funding agreement. It specifies the landlord will keep rent at $400 per month for tenants. The city will add $450 a month if the landlord adheres to certain conditions involving repairs, translators and other things. The $86,400 in subsidies over two years comes from the city’s new $50-million contribution to its affordable housing trust fund. Voters approved Question 2 in November, authorizing the city to issue a $50-million bond.

“We knew that we had just passed a $50-million bond issuance that was put into the housing trust fund and we thought, ‘This is a remarkable way to use that money with instantaneous results,’” O’Neill described.

O’Neill said the property owner was amenable to coming up with the arrangement. He said KC Tenants did all the initial legwork on negotiations.

Under the agreement, the tenants will move into renovated units once the work is complete. In the interim, repairs must be completed within three days of being reported. The agreement is in effect for two years.

Tepetlanco Barrera got the news this weekend, just days after finding out he’s on the waiting list for new kidneys.

“It was double happiness to get the news on Monday about his new kidney, being on the waitlist for a kidney transplant, and then on Friday getting the news about getting to stay in his house,” his translator said.

O’Neill couldn’t say if an agreement just like that will happen again, but he sees it as a prime example of a public-private partnership for affordable housing. He’d like to see more of that in the future.

We contacted the new property owner in New Jersey for comment. His wife told us she expected he would have no comment but would pass along our message.