The City of St. Louis, Missouri, enacted in July a new ordinance that will create a city-wide program guaranteeing the civil right to counsel (RTC) for tenants facing the threat of eviction. St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones signed the ordinance, “Board Bill 59,” shortly after its enactment. The program, which is set to begin on July 1, 2024, is the second RTC program to be established by a locality in Missouri: Kansas City established its own RTC program in 2021.
Using $685,000 in federal COVID-19 funds from the “American Rescue Plan Act,” the city’s RTC program will distribute funds to several legal aid service providers across the city to serve ZIP codes with the highest rates of eviction. Additionally, the newly enacted RTC program will create a tenant legal services position housed within the St. Louis Department of Human Services that will oversee the program’s implementation. Board Bill 59 also requires landlords to provide tenants with information regarding the availability of the program. With the passage of the new ordinance, St. Louis becomes the twenty-second jurisdiction to have implemented right-to-counsel policies nationwide and the second RTC ordinance to have been passed in Missouri. As of September 2023, 7 cities, four states, and one county guarantee access to legal representation to tenants in eviction cases.
As noted, St. Louis’s implementation of the RTC program makes the city the second locality in Missouri to ensure access to legal representation for tenants, with both programs having been passed since the start of the pandemic. In 2021, tenants, community advocates, and other housing policy leaders across the city rallied for the implementation of an eviction RTC program in Kansas City, Missouri, a city with disproportionately high eviction rates. According to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, in 2016, both Kansas City and St. Louis, were ranked as two of the cities with the highest eviction filing rates for renter households in the nation. In the same year, the number of evictions filed in Kansas City totaled 3,776, with an average of 10 households being evicted every day, while in St. Louis, 3,183 eviction cases were filed, amounting to an average of nine households evicted per day.
“Evictions are one of the more visible symptoms of the compounding issues plaguing housing as we know it today, most glaringly the housing affordability crisis and the dismal state of tenant rights and protections currently afforded to renters in Missouri and across the country,” said Vee Sanchez, affordable housing policy manager at Empower Missouri. “Evictions have and continue to be a major contributor of homelessness within our communities.”
In addition to high eviction rates in Kansas City and St. Louis, tenants have historically had unequal access to legal representation in court and in consequence have often had no defense against the threat of eviction. Data provided by the City of Kansas City suggests that only 3% of tenants had access to legal representation in court prior to the start of the pandemic, while 85% of landlords and property owners had such access – numbers that were on par with the national average, according to data from the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel. Worse yet, of the eviction cases filed in Jackson County (the county seat of Kansas City) in the 10-year period between 2006 and 2016, 99% of cases resulted in rulings being awarded in favor of the landlord. In St. Louis, moreover, a study conducted in 2012 found similar findings, including that for all eviction cases tried in St. Louis that year, only two cases were decided in favor of the tenant, while 4,934 cases were decided in favor of the landlord.
Kansas City’s RTC program, created by “Ordinance 211067,” provided tenants with an immediate safeguard from the threat of eviction, and the program has already shown success for tenants in its first full year of implementation. The RTC program, which has no eligibility requirements needed for tenants and which will cover all tenants facing eviction regardless of income, has helped assist 1,326 tenants who utilized the program’s services to avoid an eviction (or 86% of participants in total). Indeed, since the passage of “Ordinance 211067,” the city’s RTC program has seen an increase in voluntary dismissals and settlements in favor of the tenant, with more than 900 dismissals granted.
The program has been especially helpful to the most marginalized and lowest-income renter households in the city. Since the start of the program, 73% of tenants who have been represented by the city’s RTC program have been Black, while 67% of the tenants who have been represented by Kansas City’s right-to-counsel program have been women. Additionally, 83% of individuals who have utilized the program’s services were extremely low-income renters.
“Thanks to the robust organizing and advocacy efforts from Kansas City’s Right to Counsel Coalition, including KC Tenants and Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, Tenants Right to Counsel was secured in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2022,” said Sanchez. “In 2023, a coalition of organizations in St. Louis, including Action STL, STL Homes for All and Arch City Defenders, was able to pass a right to counsel, which is scheduled to roll out in 2024. These hard-won protections will play a critical role in helping to safeguard tenants’ rights and their ability to stay housed as eviction rates reach and surpass pre-pandemic eviction rates.”
Find more information on Kansas City’s RTC program here.
Find more information on St. Louis’s RTC program and ordinance here.