By Annie Gowen,
Chase Castor for The Washington Post
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In the past three months, the Thursday eviction court on the seventh floor of this courthouse in downtown Kansas City has become a masked parade of pandemic despair.
Desperate tenants, many newly unemployed because of the coronavirus, huddle together on oak benches or appear on video calls trying to forestall what for many is the inevitable — losing their homes at a time when home is the only place you can be truly safe.
“I feel like I’m being blamed for the pandemic,” one caller said as he pleaded for help from Jackson County Special Judge Jack Grate. “I have to take care of my family. We need somewhere to go.”
Missouri and six other states have allowed evictions from private rental properties to continue during the pandemic. State and local moratoriums have lapsed in other places, with landlords filing at least 43,500 evictions in 17 major cities since the pandemic began, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.
Housing advocates predicted a tsunami of evictions would follow the July 24 expiration of a nationwide moratorium on booting occupants from most federally supported rentals. But on Tuesday, President Trump ordered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to “temporarily halt” pandemic-related evictions through the end of the year, a move he hoped would make his desire to protect citizens from evictions “unmistakably clear.”
Demonstrators attend a rally for renters outside the Jackson County Courthouse in Kansas City, Mo., on July 30, 2020.
Housing advocates and public officials are still trying to work out what that means on the ground. Tenants will have to go through a lengthy application process, attesting to their loss of income, efforts to pay partial rent and that an eviction could leave them homeless.
Some housing advocates praised Trump’s move but said without rent relief or significant federal rental assistance beyond the $7 billion already allocated, the new moratorium would only delay, not prevent, the coming crisis.
“It does stop the bleeding for a while, but it doesn’t solve the problem because the rent is still piling up during the moratorium,” said John Pollock, the coordinator for the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.
More than 40 percent of renter households in the United States were facing eviction before the Trump order, including 167,000 potential evictions in Missouri, according to a recent study by Stout, a global advisory firm, based on U.S. Census Bureau data from July. An estimated 248,000 households in the state weren’t able to make their August rent, nearly one-third of all renter households, the study said.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas (D) called Trump’s action “good news” and said he had been particularly worried about this moment dovetailing with a school year in which more children are learning online at home. He grew up homeless for parts of his childhood and would wake up early to do his homework in the bathroom of the motel room he shared with his mom and his sisters because it was the only place he could turn on a light without waking them up.
“It’s largely positive,” Lucas said. “But like everything else with this administration, we need to see the details.”
One of the protesters stands to disrupt an eviction hearing at the Jackson County Courthouse.
Jackson County restarted its eviction court after a local hold expired May 31, with landlords filing nearly 1,100 evictions since that time, according to the housing advocacy group KC Tenants, and carrying out nearly 300, the court said.
Valerie Hartman, the public information officer for the court, said judges were reviewing Trump’s Tuesday order and had not yet made a decision on how to proceed.
But the impact of the evictions is already being felt in Jackson County — a dramatic surge in homelessness, rising hunger, more people surrendering their pets to animal shelters — is a preview of what the United States could expect in the coming months if the government fails to provide more housing assistance, advocates say.
At evictions court earlier this month, married couple Nicole and Leorteze McCray huddled together, comforting each other as they waited for their case to be called. At one moment, Nicole McCray, 28, brushed tears from her eyes. Her husband was laid off from his job at Subway when restaurant dining rooms closed, and he was never rehired; she lost her job at a call center on May 2. They were facing the loss of the home where they have lived for four years.
A woman from Legal Aid of Western Missouri approached and told her that if she asked to have her case continued she might have extra time to get the more than $1,715 in back rent together. McCray said a week wouldn’t make any difference.
“We don’t have no money,” she said. “We’re going to be out on the streets.”
When McCray’s case was called, she told the judge that they had both lost their jobs and she had spent weeks trying to get through on a phone line for unemployment benefits that was perpetually busy.
“I can’t do anything about it. There’s nothing I can do,” Grate said, although he added he was “sympathetic” to the couples’ plight. He ordered their case to proceed for a final hearing.
Chase Castor for The Washington Post
Eiland walks her mastiff, Cain, outside a Days Inn. She has been staying there since her eviction.
Homeless and hungry
Protests and calls for rent strikes and rent cancellations have proliferated across the country in recent weeks as job losses soared and the $600-a-week pandemic unemployment benefit for 30 million people expired. Trump ordered a new unemployment benefit for at least $300 a week last month, but that money has not reached many workers and may be short-lived.
Protesters in New York hung sheets from their windows spray-painted with the words “No Job, No Rent.” In New Orleans, protesters chained themselves together under a banner that read, “Eviction = Death.” In Missouri, KC Tenants hung an eviction notice on the governor’s gate and disrupted Jackson County’s eviction court with shouts of “Evictions are an act of violence!”
The ratio of tenants behind on rent is 1 in 5, according to a study for the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, with Black and Latino renters facing the greatest hardship.
In Kansas City, there has been a “dramatic surge” in the number calling the 211 emergency line to access homeless housing programs, with more than 1,000 calls since April, according to Marqueia Watson of the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness. Food continues to be in high demand, she said, and some pantries distributed in one day the volume of food they had distributed in a month before the pandemic.
Kelli Jones, a spokesman for the state’s Republican governor, Mike Parson, said that the state had allocated $7.5 million in funds to combat homelessness before the pandemic. An additional $9.5 million in Cares Act funding has not yet been dispersed as state officials await federal guidance on how it can be spent, she said. Kansas City has allocated $1.5 million in Cares Act funds for emergency rental and utility assistance.
Chase Castor for The Washington Post
Eiland was evicted from her home because she was unable to pay her rent.
Krisi Eiland, 35, a mother of three who was about to be evicted from her Kansas City home, saw the tenants’ protest on television and contacted the group. She had moved with her three girls, ages 4 to 18, into a $850-a-month house in February after her divorce was finalized last year, but she lost her job at a flooring company when the pandemic hit and struggled to pay rent. She started working as a clerk at Family Dollar, but the drop in pay — from $16.50 to $12.50 an hour — hit hard.
“I was in this whole ‘I am woman’ power thing; I was going to do this on my own without a man, and I faltered,” she said.
By the time the sheriff’s deputy pounded on her door on Aug. 11, she was alone with her dog Kane, waiting. She had taken the girls to her ex’s, drained the fish tank that had belonged to her late father — giving the Jack Dempseys away because she couldn’t bear to flush them down the toilet — and moved what she could to a storage unit. She had a dream that she and Kane were living in a box fort at the end of the driveway.
When the sheriff’s deputy and an armed employee from the property management company came to change the locks, Eiland called Wilson Vance, a KC Tenants organizer, who arrived and started filming on her phone.
The grizzled employee of the management company became exasperated.
“She has to pay rent or she’s gotta go,” he said on camera. “I bet if you go in there you’ll find a new flat screen. . . . Every house we’ve closed on, there’s a brand-new flat screen in the living room. That’s where their stimulus money went. It didn’t go to rent. It didn’t go to food. It went to flat screens.
“I don’t have any feelings for these people. None,” he said. “I was raised, ‘You pay your way.’ If you don’t pay your way, you pay the price.”
Zachary Lund, a lawyer for the property owner, had no comment, and the management company did not return phone calls.
Vance helped Eiland move her things — Kane’s dog bowls, a few bags of clothes and her last $15 — into a temporary hotel room, where she strung up the same string of Christmas lights she’d had at home. Vance posted the video of the ranting man on Twitter, where hundreds of people saw it and were so moved that donations to Eiland’s GoFundMe page flowed in. She now has $13,000.
The unexpected windfall will provide a fresh start, but she is still anxious about her family’s long-term stability. She is contemplating buying a small, fixer-upper mobile home so they’ll never be evicted again. She plans to look at one she’s been eyeing on Facebook — $5,000 or best offer, “NEEDS WORK.”
“Needs work,” she said. It’s the story of her life right now, “and that’s no lie.”
Chase Castor for The Washington Post
Eiland walks to her room at the Days Inn.
‘We feel lost’
For thousands of people, Trump’s order has come too late. Nicole McCray’s tiny white wood-frame house with the sagging steps has been a jumble of boxes, shoes and books in recent days as she and her husband have begun packing up four years of belongings ahead of the judge’s formal eviction judgment Aug. 27.
McCray didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of her neighbors, so she was trying to get packed up before the sheriff deputies came knocking on her door. The plan was that she would temporarily go to her mother’s home, Leorteze to his grandmother’s.
“We feel lost,” she said.
But then McCray developed a hacking cough and had to spend many of her days in bed, despite her desire to get the house packed up. She and her husband have both now been diagnosed with the coronavirus. “We are sick as all get out,” McCray said.
She told the judge at the Aug. 27 remote hearing that she thought she had scraped up enough money to pay the back rent and plans to start a new job as an assistant manager at Family Dollar after her quarantine period has ended.
Grate still ruled in the landlord’s favor, but suggested McCray try to make a deal to stay.
“If you can buy your way out of this, a lot of times they’d rather have money than possession. Good luck,” he said.
But the landlord wasn’t interested in bargaining. The couple, still feeling coronavirus symptoms, have to be out by Friday.
Her landlord, Keven Powell, 66, said he was tired of hearing about the couple’s woes.
“One of them lost their job, the other one don’t work,” he said. “I’ve dealt with these people for quite a while. Sooner or later you just run out of patience.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.