In early December 2020, Metropolitics editorial board member Josh Akers interviewed researcher/organizer/activist Tara Raghuveer about her work with KC Tenants in Kansas City, Missouri, and with the Homes Guarantee. KC Tenants is an organization led by poor and working-class renters. Over the last few years, these tenants have won major victories in a city and state that have long neglected renters’ needs.
Shortly after this interview, KC Tenants embarked on its “No-Eviction January” campaign. The sustained direct action stopped over 900 evictions, over 90% of all eviction hearings scheduled in Kansas City in January 2021. In the midst of the pandemic, KC Tenants has found a clear purpose, increasingly creative use of direct action, and a way to build national coalitions to disrupt local evictions.
Development of an active tenants’ organization engaged in direct action is relatively new for Kansas City. The sprawling Midwestern city remains heavily segregated and the predominance of single-family housing presents challenges to traditional tenant organizing. But tenants continue to find ways to win, writing and campaigning for a tenants’ bill of rights passed by the KC city council in 2019. In the early days of the pandemic, they organized a car caravan stretching nearly 250 miles between Kansas City and St. Louis, Missouri’s two largest cities, demanding the governor cancel rent. They have chained the courthouse shut, disrupted virtual hearings utilizing volunteers from across the country, and stopped in‑person hearings. They have also developed an innovative fellowship program that pays low-income tenants to organize the organization.
Tenant organizing has long been absent in Kansas City. Raghuveer, KC Tenants’ founder, sees the work, creativity, and possibilities recognized by tenant organizers as leading the way towards a homes guarantee. The Homes Guarantee is a campaign to guarantee safe, accessible, sustainable, and permanently affordable housing to everyone in the US. As Raghuveer notes in the interview, the stakes are high with or without a pandemic: “What I am trying to say is what Arundhati Roy said much more succinctly at the beginning of the pandemic, which is that the pandemic is a portal: it can be a portal towards a radically better and more just and more equitable world, perhaps a world with a homes guarantee, or it can be a portal to re‑entrenchment in late-stage neoliberal capitalism, which is quite literally killing hundreds of thousands of people as we speak.”
You can watch the interview here and read a lightly edited transcript below.
Josh Akers: Could you tell us what organizations you are working for, and what the state of things is like in Kansas City right now?
Tara Raghuveer: I am the co-founder and director of a grassroots organization in Kansas City called KC Tenants, led by poor and working-class renters in Kansas City. I am also the director of a campaign for a homes guarantee at People’s Action which is a national network of grassroots organizations.
We are in a pretty dire situation and have been for months. Kansas City, like almost every place in this country, was in the midst of a renter catastrophe prior to Covid, and during Covid things have really gotten bad. Kansas City is a relatively blue city in a very red state, and we have almost no protection at the state level. During Covid, the governor has not issued an eviction moratorium, he has not even issued a stay-at-home order across the state and so it’s all been left up to local officials to decide the fate of renters during this pandemic, when pf course staying home is the one thing that we can do to keep ourselves and our communities healthy. So, we won an eviction moratorium in Kansas City back in March 2020, but that moratorium expired in May and the local judge failed to extend it. So, since June, evictions have occurred in Kansas City in two ways: one by conference call, and another in person in the courthouse, forcing people to expose themselves potentially to coronavirus in order to get kicked out of their home. Over the course of last several months we have been in the trenches with many tenants across the city who are experiencing evictions, uninhabitable conditions, and harassment from their landlords during these times that are hard for all of us even if we are not experiencing those things.
Josh: How many evictions are you seeing in the city itself?
Tara: About 2,500 evictions have been filed since June. And that is just in Jackson County, Missouri, which is just one of the five metro-area counties, and it’s the one that contains most of what we know as urban Kansas City. Not all those filings result in an eviction judgment—some tenants are protected by the national eviction moratorium, but about 700 tenants have received official eviction judgments by the courts in the last several months since the moratorium expired.
Josh: It seems you have had quite a bit of success in slowing those court proceedings down, at least. Can you tell us about the development of the direct actions that have happened on behalf of these tenants?
Tara: We have a beautiful spirit of joyous rebellion in our organization, and even prior to Covid we were doing escalated direct actions that focused on bringing the crisis to its creators. That’s the framework we use to think about in what direction the direct action is going and why we do it. We have done street theater; we have done massive rallies; and, at the beginning of Covid, of course, we were really challenged—like most organizers across the country—to imagine what direct action looked like during a time when we need it more than ever. But it’s also potentially dangerous to bring collectives of people out to the streets or into closed corridors.
So, we began the pandemic period doing creative direct actions that were following all possible Covid guidelines. In April, for example, with a coalition of allies across the state of Missouri, we lined the entire state from St. Louis to Kansas City with cars every five miles on I‑70 and that was to demand rent and mortgage cancellation and other protections from our governor. That action did not move the creator of our crisis to do much of anything, unfortunately, but it was part of building this incredible coalition that we now have across the state, and of course it was part of our people claiming and feeling power during a time when everything was making them feel powerless. So, that is how our direct actions began, and then over the course of the summer, as things got really bad in Kansas City and eviction numbers started to rise, we knew that we had to take a different course of action.
At the beginning of the summer, we were trying to escalate on our local judge to force him to extend the eviction moratorium. We showed up at his house and did a vigil outside of his apartment building. We had his neighbors flyer the entire building. We organized someone from his Bible study to call him and leave a message at home and compel him to extend the moratorium because of moral reasons. We sent letters, etc. But he continued to fail to extend the moratorium. So, eventually we said, what is our goal? Our goal is that no one is evicted, that people stay in their homes. Our goal is not necessarily to win an eviction moratorium—that is just one strategy towards that goal. So if we’re not going to win the demand, we have to actually force the demand to be met. So this summer we started channeling the energy of the chant: “If we do not get it, shut it down.” We weren’t getting an eviction moratorium—the judge made it abundantly clear that nothing we did would compel him in that direction—so we decided that we had to shut down the eviction court ourselves, and started in July. We had a bifurcated disruption: some people going into the courthouse and individually in the courtroom itself, verbally disrupting the court proceedings until they were taken out by a court marshal, then another person would go, they were removed by a court marshal and there was this domino effect inside. That was happening in two courtrooms. In the other two courtrooms where evictions were happening, and mostly by conference call, we organized about 50 disrupters from around the country to call into those eviction proceedings and verbally disrupt them by conference call and that completely shut down the eviction process because those conference calls are playing overhead in the courtroom itself. So if you shut down the online or teleconference evictions, you shut down the evictions for the entire day. We learned in July that that was actually the most effective way to shut down all the evictions at a scale where we could actually be claiming to seriously be mucking up this violent process.
We planned to do them again, but then the CDC issued their own moratorium back in September and we decided to wait a second to see if that would do anything. It did not. The judge here was still evicting tenants, so we decided to come back and do both in-person and online disruptions again that looked like a court blockade where we had leaders chain themselves to the doors of the building to block entrance, and then, the next time we disrupted online, we disrupted all four courtrooms in the morning and the afternoon, effectively ending all the evictions for the entire day. Since then, we have sustained our online disruptions to the extent that we’ve been successful in shutting down an entire courtroom in Jackson County proper. The judge with the highest volume of eviction dockets ended evictions for the entire year. We recently went to Independence [a city east of Kansas City] and have started expanding our reach to other courtrooms in Missouri to shut down their processes. We are dedicated to the idea of creating a situation where no tenant can be evicted in January. To date, we have delayed probably 370 evictions through disruption, and most of those have been delayed to January or February, and then several hundred more tenants have benefited from protection from the CDC moratorium, but that moratorium expires on January 1st. So the plan in January is that we are going to declare January “Zero-Eviction January” and we will be doing everything we can, using every tool in the belt, at scale, and sustained over the course of the month to make sure that no one is evicted from the New Year.
Josh: What was the housing situation in Kansas City prior to Covid?
Tara: It was not terribly unique and that is what is interesting. It is not as though Kansas City had an eviction crisis that looked remarkably different from Detroit’s or Milwaukee’s or Cleveland’s—it was actually quite similar to all of those cities and really any kind of midsize, Midwestern city with a similar history of racial segregation and ownership trends.
Kansas City was in the midst of a housing crisis like every other place in America where the majority of low-wage workers and poor folks in the city could not afford an average two-bedroom apartment before Covid. Some 48% of city households rent, and most of those renters are cost-burdened to some degree that makes them a really vulnerable class in the economy. And then concurrently, in the last decade, Kansas City has been victim to financialization and real-estate speculation. It was basically bought and sold by private equity in the last 10 years. So most of the most vulnerable tenants now rent from corporate out-of-state landlords. I like to call them “landlords of last resort.” It is the place that the tenant goes when they have maybe a couple of evictions on their record, maybe a conviction in their criminal history, maybe they do not have three times the rent in order to prove that they can make the requirements, and they end up in the hands of these slumlords, who, by the way, are getting financing from the federal government and further financing from HUD and other voucher programs. But because of the precarity of their tenants’ situations, the landlords are able to make money through extraction and exploitation and a kind of eviction machine. So what I was finding in my research was that there were at least a handful of landlords for whom eviction was part of the business model. It does not make business sense for everyone, but it does for some of these landlords of last resort where the demand for their units at the rate of affordability is so high is that it actually makes them money to turn people in and out of those units and to take part in a business of evictions.
Josh: We see that same process in Detroit. It is the ability to push people through faster, capturing whatever deposits and other pieces along the way, to do that.
You mentioned the types of landlords which have come into Kansas City in the last 10 years. One of things that always struck me about Kansas City is that it also has a large amount of single-family houses, not just multifamily units. In the organizing that KC Tenants is doing, are you largely focused on those multifamily units? Are you finding ways to organize with those in single-family houses? What kinds of landlords do you see on the single-family side?
Tara: Yeah, it is a big mix in Kansas City between multifamily projects and single-family rentals, and also single-family homes that people own. In our base, we have a mix of tenants who live in much larger multifamily complexes as well as smaller single-family units. What is interesting is that corporate landlords own both types of housing in Kansas City. The corporate landlords sometimes are the owners of the multifamily complex and sometimes the owners of hundreds or thousands of units of single-family rentals across the city, and those tenants are a lot harder to organize. It is a lot harder to organize a union of tenants who are not actually neighbors who live down the hallway from one another, but rather are neighbors in a sprawling city. So we have had some challenges organizing even the tenants of the same landlords who live in distinct single-family properties. It is much easier to organize one building where you can go knock on every door within the span of a couple of hours and convene people in the common areas and you see the same people every day. That is much more conducive to the makings of what we traditionally know as a tenant union.
And with that being said, because of the way the rental market looks in the Kansas City, we do have leaders in our base who are renters of single-family properties and a lot of how we found them is just by canvasing. We are canvasing in the neighborhoods that we know to be eviction hotspots, and in neighborhoods that were historically racially redlined, and these are the neighborhoods with the deepest impact on these issues even today. Through that canvasing we found a lot of leaders at the door who we might have missed if we were only focused on multifamily properties.
Josh: You have mentioned the kind of places that have been redlined in Kansas City and these two questions go together.
One I am interested in the Tenants’ Bill of Rights which passed in Kansas City in 2019. There are some good provisions in there, but some of them seem very basic, like 24‑hour notice before the landlord comes in. That indicates that very few protections are already on the ground.
I am also interested in the reports that say the city council actually struck a line about racism in the housing market in Kansas City. It would be great to hear about that historically but also the way it has persisted in the city and the way you guys encounter it in your organizing.
Tara: Kansas City is an interesting place for studying housing for two reasons. One is that it is not all that remarkable, as I said before; it is pretty comparable to a lot of other cities and that makes it an interesting and relevant case study. The second is that Kansas City is actually the birthplace of a lot of the most widely spread racist housing policies in the country. There was a man named J. C. Nichols in the early part of the 20th century who was the mega-developer of Kansas City and had a vision for communities that were lush, lovely country-club communities, and then everyone else living in a different part of town. He wrote into law a lot of the practices that were then spread across the country to make communities in that way. Restrictive covenants, redlining practices, etc., were all in some ways the invention of this man in Kansas City, Missouri. J. C. Nichols and the history of racism in Kansas City’s housing policy is relevant for anyone who is interested in studying these issues, and the repercussions today are that we do indeed still have this country-club district, which is kind of the vision of J .C. Nichols initially, and we also have an intensely segregated city. There is a road called Troost [Avenue], which is basically the racial dividing line in Kansas City, and, interestingly, when I make my maps of eviction in Kansas City, mostly with data scientists who don’t live here, they look at the maps and there is almost a 100% hit rate of total confusion when they they see this line. They think it’s the state line. It is not the state line. It is Troost, because there are several blocks east of the state line that are not high-eviction-rate areas; they’re majority-white, and evictions and other housing problems do not really affect those areas. And then, east of Troost, basically you can map on any negative trend about Kansas City, and it is concentrated in the communities that are relegated to that part of town.
The history of racism in Kansas City’s housing policies certainly plays out today. We do not have a ban on source-of-income discrimination, which is basically modern-day segregation: it allows local landlords to discriminate against Black single moms or disproportionately the people who might have a voucher to try to access their housing. And you are absolutely right that when we tried to get this Tenants’ Bill of Rights passed last December, we did ultimately get it passed but the city council struck out two critical things that could have taken us massive steps in the direction of racial equity. One was that they cut the source-of-income discrimination ban, putting Kansas City behind dozens of cities and multiple states that have already banned source-of-income discrimination. And then the council also struck this symbolic line in the resolution that we passed, where we were just acknowledging the history of racism in Kansas City’s housing policy and the contemporary ways in which that is still the case about Kansas City’s housing market today. And the city council and the landlord community were so incensed and upset at that recognition of the historical and contemporary truth that they struck those lines, and they would not pass the resolution if we were going to say that Kansas City still is a racist place, especially in terms of its housing practices.
Josh: Those are two major things to strike, but how did you even get this thing through? In my understanding of Kansas City and its council, and its engagement with landlords and property, it seems a pretty radical proposition for the city itself…
Tara: Right, it is and it isn’t. There are a lot of really basic tenant protections in the Tenants’ Bill of Rights, and the reason we had to write that way is that Missouri is a horrible state in which to be a tenant. There is almost no protection at the state level so we had to write into law whatever we could win at the city level, this kind of low-hanging fruit. To us, it became this funny thing in the end where we were having to remember in every tenant meeting why this was worth fighting for. But it was a stepping stone towards a bigger vision that we have for Kansas City, and the process itself was pretty radical. There has never been, to my knowledge, a process in Kansas City’s policymaking that was actually led by people who are impacted by what the policy would then do.
Our leaders wrote the Tenants’ Bill of Rights; that is not an exaggeration. For months, we met together for hours every week in a union hall in Kansas City and wrote the Tenants’ Bill of Rights. Every provision in it is connected to a story of a leader in our base who needed that kind of protection and did not have it at some point in their rental history. And so when we were fighting for the Tenants’ Bill of Rights, it was evident to the council that this was a different kind of fight than ever before because when we were doing meetings, it was not me meeting with a council member to sell them on the policy; it was a group of at least six or eight tenants telling their stories, asking the council members to tell us their stories, and making a clear and human pitch for why we needed this bill. When it came time for committee deliberation and public testimony, these were the most crowded committee hearings Kansas City had ever seen. They had to do a couple of them offsite because we would turn out 500 people to be at a housing committee meeting about the Tenants’ Bill of Rights. We passed the bill with the vast majority of council support. There were some major concessions along the way, but the only way that we were able to pass such a piece of legislation in a place like Kansas City was through the months of organizing that led up to that process. In the spring of last year , we were organizing to make housing the key issue in the municipal election. We were using the election as a strategy to organize renters towards this vision and in doing so we got the mayor, the now-mayor, and the now-council to commit verbally to a tenants’ bill of rights written by our people, and then last fall in running this campaign we were collecting on their commitment. We were holding them accountable to a thing that they had already committed to in public, and I am sure they expected no accountability, but we were ready and waiting with our Tenants’ Bill of Rights.
Josh: Given your work at the national level with the Homes Guarantee, where you can see the intersection of that work in Kansas City with that broader national work, what is the field following or in the midst of Covid, what is the field to this movement, and how was it changed?
Tara: The homes guarantee is a pretty simple campaign: it is a campaign for a world in which everyone has safe, accessible, truly and permanently affordable homes. It is also a campaign that is complicated by what I call a conspiracy of the profiteers that has limited our imagination to the extent that something like a homes guarantee feels impossible in the American economy that we currently have. We are trying to transform housing from commodity to guaranteed human right, guaranteed public good, and that is a long-term agenda campaign—we do not expect to win anytime soon, but it is our North Star vision. Towards that vision we have to take certain steps. There are stepping-stone reforms that can take us toward a homes guarantee and there are plenty of reforms that might sound good but actually entrench us in the system that we have today. One interesting thing during Covid is that the homes guarantee gives us a framework for understanding what actual relief for tenants could look like.
In the spring, there was a heated debate in the housing movement between the tenant movement, which was fighting for rent and mortgage cancellation, and housing advocates and nonprofit housing providers that were fighting for rental assistance. The reason for that divide is that tenants are fighting for a world that is systemically different than the world we have now. We are fighting for a world where we are freed from this notion of housing as a commodity, and we are not beholden to a private landlord in order to take care of one of our most basic needs. But on the providers’ side, the whole argument was for stabilizing the existing market and for harm reduction for all parties: harm reduction for the tenant to keep them from being evicted by bailing out the landlord. We saw that as a massive bailout. The homes guarantee provides the clarity to understand which of those is actually a step towards a better world versus which of those is re‑entrenching us in the system that we are constantly critiquing.
One way in which the homes guarantee connects to our local work is that it allows that matrix of thought about which policies we would take on and which fights we want to pick in order to take us a couple of steps closer to an ultimate vision of a homes guarantee. The other main connection is acknowledging that the homes guarantee is mostly a narrative campaign today. It is mostly a campaign in this battle of big ideas—what we need to do today in order to get to that actually becoming a practical reality is a massive amount of base and infrastructure building. We basically need KC Tenants 50, 100, 1,000 times over across the country if we’re ever going to have the kind of political power we need as a movement to win something like a homes guarantee. I see that work of KC Tenants completely connected to a homes guarantee, and there are ways in which my local work benefits from a national perspective and the kind of community of comrades I have fighting with me for a homes guarantee, and there are ways in which the national work benefits from an upstart tenant organization doing some kind of innovative and different things in a context where there was not really a history of tenant organizing because that kind of new base-building practice can be applied across the country in various different settings, and we are already starting to see some of the fruits of that.
There is a mantra that we have taken on at KC Tenants in the last several months, which is that every eviction is an act of violence—not only during the pandemic but all the time. It is an act of state-sanctioned violence against one class of people and benefiting another class of people and their profits, but right now, especially, evictions can be a death sentence.
In the context of this pandemic where we don’t have a vaccine yet and there is no prescription to treat the pandemic, housing is the vaccine, staying at home is the prescription, and everything that we do as a movement at the policy level, at the data and analysis level, at the organizing level as a movement to keep people in their homes is actually something that we are doing to keep people alive. We are directly combating a deadly virus unlike anything we have ever seen, and that should be understood to be what it is.
Something that has frustrated me enormously is this false comparison between a tenant losing their home and a property owner losing profits on a building. Those things are not the same, especially not in a context where losing a home could mean losing your life, when staying at home is the best way to keep yourself healthy and alive in a pre-vaccine context. Even as the vaccine spreads through the country—and perhaps there is a post-Covid moment waiting for us on the other side—the economic devastation of this time is so profound. The vision for the homes guarantee actually has to be expanded maybe three- or fivefold to account for the economic devastation that this pandemic and the corresponding economic crisis has caused for our people. We had been calling for 12 million units of social housing—that should probably be a call for 35 or 50 million units of social housing in a post-Covid context. Similarly, we need to be thinking about what happened in the last economic crisis, 10 years ago, that led to the kind of speculation that sold out Kansas City and many cities like it to big private equity firms in New York and California and even outside of this country.
We are on the precipice of yet another catastrophic moment like that, when properties will be falling out of their current hands and into a speculative economy, unless the federal government steps in. There are many ways in which the government could step in, purchase those properties or assert a first right to purchase those properties, and that could be the transition to a homes guarantee. It could be the seedlings of a broader social-housing program. I am trying to say what Arundhati Roy said much more succinctly at the beginning of the pandemic: the pandemic is a portal. It can be a portal towards a radically better and more just and more equitable world, perhaps a world with a homes guarantee, or it can be a portal to re‑entrenchment in late-stage neoliberal capitalism, which is quite literally killing hundreds of thousands of people as we speak. The work of tenant organizing may seem minuscule in the context of the broader fights to fight, but I see it as a critical piece of the fight towards the better-world option. Otherwise, frankly, I think we are doomed.
Josh: I am hoping for the former portal rather than the latter.