Even When Kansas Citizens Find Housing, Dangerous Construction Conditions Make Them Sick | KCUR 89.3
Sakinah Cooper considers herself lucky. She loves the place where she lives with her two young children and her boyfriend. This is a two bedroom rental in a converted mobile home community in Kansas City, up north.
“We used to chat about it a bit at first, but once we saw it it was pretty cool,” Cooper said. “And the move was pretty straightforward.”
This was important because at the start of this year, Cooper was in a rush to move out of her last accommodation – an apartment in the neighboring Regency North complex, where she had lived for a year and a half.
A drop in the ceiling had opened in a hole, Cooper said, and she saw something in the vents that looked like black mold. She was pregnant and she and her 7 year old son had a persistent cough.
“I don’t know if he remembers that, but we were kinda coughing in there,” Cooper said. “It was really an unhealthy situation.”
But it was not an unusual situation. While quality affordable housing is increasingly difficult to find in and around Kansas City, hundreds of families live in unsanitary and dangerous places. Last year, when schools and workplaces closed and city officials asked people to stay home to stop the spread of COVID-19, they unwittingly placed some residents at higher risk of getting sick. for environmental reasons.
“I probably had a thousand people calling me last year asking for housing,” said Kylie Navarro, director of homeowner services for Kansas City Habitat for Humanity.
Some of those callers were desperate to get out of unsafe and unsanitary rental housing, she said. Others were forced to move out as leases expired or ownership changed hands.
Habitat for Humanity repairs homes and puts families on the path to homeownership. It also helps people iron out credit and financial issues so that they have a better chance of qualifying for mortgages. But even a good credit history does not guarantee a home.
“I had 16 families who were able to get pre-approved for a loan and just couldn’t find anything in their price range that didn’t need a ton of repairs,” Navarro said. “There is definitely not enough affordable housing in Kansas City. “
“Not enough responsibility”
Gina Chiala, Executive Director and Staff Lawyer at the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, works with tenants threatened with eviction and possible homelessness. She said many families are living in appalling conditions just to keep a roof over their heads.
“Rats, mice, bedbugs, cockroaches are problems for many tenants,” said Chiala. “A lot of these large apartment buildings, the owners don’t proactively deal with to prevent infestations. And these are terrible health threats. “
Chiala and her team also see collapsed ceilings, holes in the floors, and homes without heating, running water or electricity.
“We see everything,” she said. “And unfortunately there is not enough responsibility when it comes to owners and their duties to provide safe and hygienic housing.”
Historically, this has been the case. Based on the most recent data from 2016, the Princeton University Expulsion Lab calculated the eviction rate at 4.19, which means that more than four in every 100 tenant households were evicted that year. That’s well above the national average of 2.34.
The rate in Kansas City, Kansas, was even higher – 5.6 out of 100 tenant households. In Independence, Missouri, the rate was 4.21.
Tenants and advocates say unscrupulous landlords often find reasons to evict tenants who ask for or withhold rent in an attempt to resolve issues. And tenants with an eviction on their record often have to settle for even worse conditions.
Housing as a health prescription
In one Report 2020, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities wrote that “poor quality housing or housing located in neighborhoods in which policymakers and businesses have underinvested can lead to health problems that not only worsen individual health outcomes but also worsens public health in ways. avoidable … “
In a previous report from the center from 2014, it attributed up to 30% of asthma cases to domestic environmental circumstances.
“Poor housing conditions, chaotic and violent neighborhoods, and concerns about housing stability can also cause toxic stress or exacerbate mental health and addiction issues,” the report adds.
Naser Jouhari, who manages environmental health for the Kansas City Health Department, put it more simply, “Tell me where you live, and I’ll tell you how healthy you will live your life.
Recognition of the link between housing and health prompted the Department of Health a few years ago to come up with a rent inspection program, which would be funded by landlord fees.
Landowners opposed the measure, and she was buried in a city council committee. But voters signed petitions to put the issue on a ballot, and it passed handily in August 2018.
According to the latest report from the Ministry of Health, at the end of June, the Healthy Housing Inspection Program had received more than 4,000 complaints and carried out 3,500 inspections since the program began in September 2018.
“A lot of the issues were resolved before we even responded, and that’s the goal,” Jouhari said.
He said complaints increased during the pandemic as tenants – stuck at home – began to notice leaks and other issues in their units.
Tenants in an apartment building reported a smell of gas. Inspectors gained access to the basement and found a few feet of sewage.
“You can tell that this water had been there not only for a few days, but for years,” Jouhari said. “The violation has been going on for a long time, but now tenants notice it and smell it all day. “
The story of a healthy home
Cooper contacted Healthy Homes in February to report his dripping ceiling and suspicion of black mold.
She said an inspector responded quickly and cited the landowners for three violations.
Regency North management did not respond to a request from KCUR to discuss Cooper’s situation. Cooper said they carried out work on his unit after the inspection, but the problems persisted. She complained again and management offered to let her break her lease without penalty, so she rushed to find new accommodation.
Cooper said his experience with Healthy Homes was positive.
“The lady who came out, she was really nice and she had kids too, so she understood the urgency of that, and she followed me even after I moved,” she said.
But not all tenants are familiar with the rental inspection program. And Healthy Homes has its limits. He will not respond to a complaint if a landlord has filed for eviction, for example. And some landlords choose to stop renting altogether rather than paying for necessary repairs.
“I think it’s an important program,” said Chiala, of the Heartland Center. “But I think it’s very small in the grand scheme of things that need to change.”
The housing situation in Kansas City has deteriorated beyond the point where it can be corrected through inspections and repairs, she said. There are simply not enough safe and sanitary homes at affordable prices for working families.
“Our housing system is broken,” Chiala said. “Renters take whatever home they can get because they are underpaid and the rents are too high, and they have no options.
This was the case before the pandemic, and Chiala and others believe it could get worse once the finale. the federal moratorium on evictions lifted on July 31.
The Chiala team and the lawyers of Western Missouri Legal Aid plan to visit the courts when the eviction case is underway to educate tenants about their rights – something they started a few years before the pandemic.
But these efforts, like the city’s rental inspections and the Habitat for Humanity program to get low-income families eligible for mortgages, help a small number of people, and often the help is temporary. . They are far from the radical policy changes this would be necessary to increase the supply of affordable housing in Kansas City.
While the pandemic has made many Kansas citizens realize how unsanitary their housing conditions are, the region has yet to use this knowledge as an opportunity for bold action.
“We see some small steps in the right direction,” said Chiala. “But it’s up to all of us to keep pushing and fighting for the working conditions, housing conditions and health care that everyone needs to be able to live human lives.”
Housing resources in Kansas City
For disputes with owners or legal advice, you can contact:
- Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom: 816-278-1344
- Western Missouri Legal Aid:
- Office at 920, boulevard Sud-Ouest: 816 474-9868
- Office at 4001 Blue Parkway: 816-474-6750
- KC Tenants: 816-533-5435
- Healthy Housing Inspection Program (to file a complaint or ask questions): 816 513-6347
If you need help getting advice on homeownership or need home repairs, you can contact:
- Kansas City Habitat for Humanity: 816-924-1096
Brittany Callan contributed to this story.
This piece is part of a collaboration that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, The Beacon / KCUR 89.3; Bridge Michigan / Public Media for Side Effects; Cicero Independiente / South Side Weekly; Detour Detroit / Planet Detroit / Tostada Magazine; Evanston Roundtable / Growing Community Media; Pilot and review Madison365 / Wausau; and MinnPost / Sahan Journal.
The project was made possible through a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with additional support from INN’s Amplify News project and the Solutions Journalism Network.