Published December 18th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Liz Hixon got an eviction letter for Christmas. She has until Jan. 31 to get out of her apartment.
Hixon signed a one-year lease in June. This would have been her first time hosting a Christmas gathering with her family. But those plans have been scrapped by the pandemic and her pending eviction. A blue Christmas awaits.
“(It) is kind of a bummer,” she said. “Like thinking about what to do next has been really overwhelming.”
Hixon lives, for now, at The Alps, controlled by prominent midtown landlord Del Hedgepath. Hedgepath recently decided to renovate the 100-year-old property at 20 W. 36th St., and gave tenants 68 days to find a new home.
“I do not apologize whatsoever,” said Hedgepath, citing the building’s dilapidated condition. “If ever a building needed a renovation, The Alps is one.”
But Hedgepath’s decision to renovate The Alps and evict his tenants just as the COVID-19 pandemic was peaking has made the property a flashpoint in a broader battle between landlords and tenants. A raging pandemic, combined with surging unemployment affecting service workers more likely to rent their homes, has made an ongoing eviction problem even worse.
A small group of Alps residents, with the help of KC Tenants, formed The Alps Apartment Tenant Union and presented Hedgepath with a list of demands. Those demands included reimbursement for December rent, security deposits returned in full by Jan. 1, 2021, and no rent collection for January 2021.
Hedgepath’s initial response was “LOL.” At the moment, Hedgepath has six pending eviction cases, he confirmed.
“We’ve probably waived $20,000 of late fees,” Hedgepath said.
Tenant union leader Emily Keizer said the worst part of the eviction notice was the landlord’s “callousness of the timing.” January can get dangerously cold and the pandemic is still devastating communities everywhere.
Flatland interviewed four tenant union members, two of whom had tested positive for COVID-19.
Kieran Vickers was one. Vickers said his diagnosis was an added strain to an already stressful time of year, compounded by the eviction notice. He warned that a mass move of Alps residents in coming weeks could pose a public health risk.
“Statistically, there’s got to be at least one person moving out that’s going to have COVID,” he said.
Another tenant, Alli Reusser, is a social worker. Most of her clients are high-risk, have a disability or have mental illness, so Reusser helps them allocate food, resources and other general necessities. As it stands now, she said, the needs outweigh the amount of resources available.
And now she’s struggling. Getting the virus meant she lost two weeks worth of income.
“As (with) anyone, when you miss two weeks of work it puts you in a pinch,” she said.
In Jackson County alone, there were 1,709 evictions between June 1 and Sept. 25, according to research by Kansas City Eviction Project and KC Tenants.
Before the pandemic hit, evictions were already a problem, which put local tenant-centered activist group KC Tenants in the national spotlight for demonstrating in eviction court in an effort to stop proceedings.
This year, KC Tenants has disrupted about 365 evictions. But eviction filings are still rolling in, said Gina Chiala, attorney for Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom. Landlords are allowed to file evictions in a Missouri court.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Eviction Moratorium order — set to expire at the end of the month — temporarily halts physical removal from a residence for non-payment. But there are loopholes that allow legal action to proceed.
The CDC’s FAQ document, which describes the moratorium as “non-binding,” makes it clear that the process isn’t as simple as it sounds.
For example, many tenants facing eviction don’t know they need to sign a declaration form and turn it into their landlord to invoke the moratorium’s protections.
Even so, the moratorium is being interpreted differently depending on the court. That’s the case in Missouri, where some courts allow a landlord to file an eviction notice as long as a tenant hasn’t signed a declaration form.
So eviction court continues, in-person and online.
Some landlord advocates worry that landlords are unnecessarily being painted in a broad brush and that landlords and tenants are being pitted against one another.
The chair of the Kansas City Regional Housing Alliance, Stacey Johnson-Cosby, said tenants and landlords are two sides of the same coin. Johnson-Cosby contends tenants and landlords need to work together.
The focus, she added, is to achieve rent relief. That way, rent is paid and people aren’t evicted.
Additionally, as a landlord and local real estate agent, she said the eviction moratorium has negatively affected landlords, too. When people can’t pay their rent, she noted, landlords suffer the domino effects compounded by unemployment, the pandemic and illness.
“For many of us there’s not a profit each month there, so we’re operating on the thinnest of profit margins,” she said.
Johnson-Cosby, who is also a landlord, said some local landlords are now unable to pay their own mortgages, leading to foreclosures on the properties they rely on to make their living. Some even risk losing their own homes.
She doesn’t want to evict anyone, especially these days. In fact, she said, she has helped some of her tenants. During Thanksgiving, Johnson-Cosby replaced a tenant’s stove and housed a homeless family.
Johnson-Cosby is intent on working with renters to find relief for them to avoid a larger catastrophe a month from now.
However, tenant advocates such as Tara Raghuveer counter the claim that the challenges landlords face are similar to tenants’. It isn’t so simple, they said.
That’s where the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act came into play, which was introduced by U.S. Rep. Ilham Omar of Minnesota.
“An eviction moratorium is a fine start, but it is not enough,” it reads. “Moratorium periods will end, and tenants will face a pile of debt and potentially mass evictions. Rental assistance puts the burden on the tenant to apply for relief, and means-testing and other restrictions will mean that rental assistance misses large segments of those who need it most.”
Data suggests more people are scrambling to find ways to pay their rent and are willingly going into debt. A recent analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia showed there’s been around a 70% increase of people using their credit cards to pay rent compared to last year, according to NPR.
Heartland attorney Chiala has seen this in the courtroom and heard it in conversation with her own clients.
“(The) eviction crisis is bound to be much worse given the high levels of unemployment that has specifically struck renters,” she said. “This is a renters epidemic. This is an epidemic that is affecting people of color, low wage workers, frontline workers, and tenants specifically.
“We’re expecting there to be a very ugly situation come January.”
“We’re going to have a run on the courthouses with people being evicted, which is dangerous and unfortunate,’’ Johnson-Cosby said. “Because then they’ll be homeless … with bad credit in the middle of winter.”
The problem doesn’t end with the day the sheriff removes a person from their residence.
After an eviction, it takes about two years for tenants to get back on their feet, Chiala said. Evictions also exacerbate chronic health problems, mental health problems, and interferes with childhood education if a child suddenly moves to a different district.
Tenant advocates contend too much is at stake — ranging from health and education to the economy — not to continue the moratorium.
For now, the tenants at The Alps are scrambling to find new places to live. Some older residents are leaning on the union to help get some relief from being evicted in January. Others are relying on the goodwill of folks offering to help them find a place to live.
Even The Alps property manager, Angela Teghtmeyer, has been helping tenants look for new places to live that are within their budgets or that will waive the deposit fee. Teghtmeyer, via text, declined comment.
“It’s a little bit suffocating thinking about the end result being so soon, you know,” Reusser said. “Moving is something you usually plan for — it’s something you kind of think about months in advance. You kind of save and allocate resources.
“ … That shock of everything happening during the winter, during a pandemic, during just all of these things, um, makes it harder, I think, to stay above the stress.”
Read and watch Flatland KC’s award-winning series ‘Public Works’ here.
Catherine Hoffman covers community and culture for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. Cody Boston is a video producer for Kansas City PBS. Boston lives in a property, not The Alps, controlled by Del Hedgepath. Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS.