Published August 22nd, 2023 at 6:00 AM5 minute read
When Hell Woods moved into their new apartment at Quality Hill Towers, it was completely bug infested. Woods, whose pronouns are they/them, said they had never seen so many bugs in one spot, despite having previously lived in wooded areas.
“We had all sorts of bugs — stink bugs, lady beetles, spiders, roaches, bed bugs,” Woods said.
The bugs were not the only issue Woods encountered while settling into the new space. The mailbox didn’t lock, Woods said, and people continually took mail out of it. The windows in Woods’ apartment were difficult to get open, and the bathroom sink fell out of the wall — twice.
Woods began talking with other residents at the apartment building about the living conditions, which confirmed that other tenants faced similar troubles.
Dylan Sullins, another tenant at Quality Hill Towers, also faced issues when he moved into one of the buildings in July of 2022.
“The bathtub was, like, halfway full of water and would not drain,” Sullins said. “And the fridge — the freezer worked way too well, it froze things really well — but the fridge would not get cold… It was three weeks before they finally sent someone to fix the tub.”
A two-year backlog of maintenance orders and a short-staffed maintenance team compounded the deteriorating living conditions.
Woods’ situation boiled over when they had to call off work to remove their cat for a day due to the extermination process for the bed bugs. When Woods’ work found out about the bed bugs at the apartment, Woods was told not to return to work.
“They were afraid that bed bugs would spread to the office,” Woods said.
After realizing they wouldn’t be able to pay rent that month because of lost income, Woods contacted the property management office in tears.
“I expected that I would be compensated…because this is not my fault,” Woods said. “This is not my neighbor’s fault. They moved me into an apartment with bugs, and now I can’t go to work because of the bugs. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”
Instead, Wood’s apartment manager said if Woods didn’t pay the rent for next month, they would file an eviction notice and refer them to a charity.
“They told me not to worry because this happens to so many other of the residents, which was kind of a red flag for me,” Woods said. “And at that point in time, I knew okay, we really got to do something about this because there are people out here being wrongly evicted, and living in just the worst conditions. By the way, they never referred me to a charity, which sucks.”
Woods contacted the KC Tenants hotline to ask for guidance, and on June 12, 53 tenants at Quality Hill Towers unionized.
KC Tenants was created in February 2019 by 10 individuals. The group aims to bring attention to housing issues and advocate for tenants rights in Kansas City.
“(They) recognized that these corporations are buying up these homes, they’re jacking up the rents and are leaving tenants in pretty terrible, deteriorated living conditions, and the only people that are going to fight for that is going to be us,” said Mason Alexander Kilpatrick, a community organizer for KC Tenants. “The city has allowed this to happen. The state of Missouri has allowed this to happen. And the federal government continues to allow it to happen. So we can’t really continue to ask and ask them to do something about it when it’s very clear that they’re not going to.”
The group’s political advocacy has spurred several victories for renters in Kansas City, including the Tenants Bill of Rights, which passed just months after the group’s creation in 2019. Since its inception, KC Tenants has supported more than 10 tenants unions across the city.
Kilpatrick called the number of tenants unions bubbling up around the metro and the country a reaction to both the work of KC Tenants and how governments are treating the issue of housing, which is getting pricier.
“Rents are getting more expensive. Evictions are still at an all-time high. People were being forced out of their homes during a pandemic when people should have stayed in those homes — and people are getting pretty fed up about it,” Kilpatrick said. “And they know that if we don’t start doing this fight now for truly affordable, safe and accessible homes, there could be a future where we would never get it.”
While tenants unions have existed autonomously for years, there is no legal precedent to formalize a union, Kilpatrick said.
“When we look at a local example in Kansas City — the Tenants Bill of Rights gives tenants the right to organize and the right to form unions, but there is no legal definition of how big that union is supposed to be — how it’s supposed to come together and what that looks like,” Kilpatrick said. “So it’s kind of the Wild West when it comes to tenant unions forming and enforcing their demands onto their landlords, which can have many cons, but it also comes with many pluses, too.”
These tenants unions can exist in several forms, Kilpatrick said. They can be building-specific, neighborhood-specific, landlord specific, or citywide.
KC Tenants, which is classified as a citywide tenants union, often provides support to other tenant unions that form across the city.
Kilpatrick said KC Tenants works on building trust with tenants and provides leaders in these unions with training.
“This isn’t a situation where KC Tenants comes in and saves the day or advocates for folks or become an activist for others,” Kilpatrick said. “You know, we’re not a savior. We go into these spaces where we are asked because we know there is power that needs to be built with people hungry for it.”
KC Tenants might also provide support by sharing templates of flyers or agenda notes. For instance, at Quality Hill they supplied the tenants with a template for a demand letter, which the tenants used to advocate for the resolution of their bug infestation and plumbing problems, among other issues.
“The person from KC Tenants that’s working with us has been to I think almost every single meeting… KC Tenants has been a lifesaver through this whole process,” Sullins said.
Shortly after unionizing and writing their demand letter, the tenants successfully set up a meeting with Steven Nieglos, the vice president at Sentinel Real Estate Corp., which is the landlord of Quality Hill.
So far, the tenants have received some commitments from Sentinel, including hiring a new pest control company and a new property management team.
While the tenants at Quality Hill have seen some wins, Kilpatrick said it’s not enough. The tenants are looking to continue the battle for the apartments to be fixed at a quicker pace, which Sentinel can afford to do, Kilpatrick said.
“We’re not going to let them appease us with crumbs when we know the whole cake can be eaten,” Kilpatrick said.
In addition to taking action to improve their living situation at Quality Hill, Woods said the tenants have also found ways to help each other and build community. Tenants have helped each other clean up, wash dishes or take out trash.
“Before Hell went and knocked on everyone’s door, we were a building of individual apartments that rarely talked to each other,” Sullins said. “And now, we’ve had a cookout, we’ve had several union meetings, we’ve had just hangouts with neighbors. And it feels a lot more like a community, which I think is the biggest step towards supporting people — is making them know that the people around you are people that you can trust.”
Julie Freijat is a Dow Jones reporting intern at Kansas City PBS. She is a masters student at the University of Missouri.