Listening Project Highlights Housing Challenges Faced by Renters in Rural Missouri

KC Tenants, a tenant union in Kansas City, MO, recently undertook a listening project to learn about challenges facing tenants in rural Missouri in order to help build power among tenants statewide. The organization detailed the findings of the project in a report, “The State of Missouri Tenants: Listening to Tenants in America’s Heartland,” and in an accompanying audio reel. Several major challenges were cited by participants in the listening sessions, with housing conditions, rent costs, and landlord abuse being the most common.

Project organizers conducted over 1,000 deep listening sessions with rural tenants across Missouri. Door-to-door canvassing was focused on two regional hubs in Southeast and Southwest Missouri – Cape Girardeau and Springfield – but canvassers also conducted conversations by phone in the central and northern parts of the state. The deep listening sessions covered topics like challenges faced by tenants in their homes, questions about responsibility, and tenant ideas about the role of housing in their communities.

Half the tenants interviewed identified rent costs as a major challenge. Though high and increasing rents are usually seen as an issue faced by tenants in metropolitan areas, many of the rural tenants interviewed were paying more than half their incomes on rent and did not believe more affordable alternatives existed nearby. The minimum wage in Missouri is $11.15/hour, but tenants in Cape Girardeau, for example, would need to earn $15.52/hour in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent (see Out of Reach 2021). Increasing rent costs were cited as a particular challenge by tenants in Springfield, MO, a growing metro area. One tenant who was interviewed had lived in his unit for 13 years but after learning of an upcoming rent increase had concluded that he would have to vacate to find more affordable housing.

Fifty-three percent of tenants saw housing conditions as a major issue. Housing conditions were mentioned with particular frequency by tenants in public housing units, who cited mold, pests and rodents, and antiquated appliances as significantly affecting their quality of life. Several tenants had experienced apartment fires due to poor infrastructure, including outdated stoves and breaker boxes. Other issues commonly cited by tenants included landlord abuse (41%), poor property management (38%), safety (29%), and eviction (28%).

To assess housing stability across housing types and race, canvassers asked tenants about the lengths of time they had lived in their current homes. Residents of public housing had the highest rates of housing stability, with 36% of tenants having lived in their current unit for more than three years. Only 16% of tenants living in apartment complexes and 21% of tenants living in trailers had lived in their current units for more than three years. Housing stability was also low among Latino tenants: only 16% of Latino tenants had lived in their current unit for more than 3 years, compared to 33% of Black tenants and 36% of white tenants.

Many tenants believed that landlords, developers, and politicians were largely responsible for their current housing challenges. Tenants also mentioned the role played by whiteness, wealth, and power in creating structural barriers to more just, accessible, and affordable housing. The report concludes by listing steps KC Tenants plans to take to support local organizing efforts in rural Missouri.

Read the report at: