KC Tenants has launched their biggest campaign yet—a citywide tenant’s union.
A sea of yellow gathered outside Trinity United Methodist on Saturday afternoon to hear from those on the frontlines of KC’s historic wins in housing.
Led by longtime leader Maya Neal, the event kicked off with a performance by Center High School’s Marching Yellow Jackets. Speakers were bookended by The Salvation Choir, a Congolese Rumba band based in North KC that sent tidal waves of dancing through the crowd.
Neal shared from a lifetime of housing struggles, including the impossible expense of childcare and recent troubles with MAC Properties, a company notorious in Kansas City for denying tenants basic necessities.
Neal has been without heat, locked out of their apartment in the cold, and targeted for attempting to organize their neighbors. Neal emphasized that the struggle for safe and affordable housing—a struggle that has undeniably lethal consequences—falls heavier on the Black community. However, there is strength in numbers:
“It can feel inevitable that MAC and other gentrifiers are going to run us over, mow us down, and push us out. It can feel inevitable that they’ll pay off our city’s leaders to get their sweet little deals, and it can feel inevitable that people like me will have to sacrifice our mental health, our physical health, our babies, our well being, and our humanity for this violence. It can feel inevitable that a gorgeous gathering like this won’t be possible because the profiteers will have turned us into ghosts. But comrades, we are here. And we are a union.”
Neal’s campaign in midtown was the first neighborhood-wide union but KC Tenants plans to expand to five new neighborhood tenant unions with a goal of 10,000 active organizers.
Almost half of Kansas City’s population is renters and an expansion in the organization’s current 450 active leaders and 3500 members seems inevitable.
KC Tenants cited many more wins since 2019, with their unions based at Crestwood Apartments, Green Village Townhomes, Gabriel Tower Apartments, P.B. Lofts, Heart Village Mobile Homes, and the UMKC Dorms.
Many joined Neal in sharing their stories, including Philip Washington, another leader with KC Tenants.
Washington was released from prison in September after serving 17 years. He spoke of his difficulty in establishing a new sense of normalcy:
Washington was released from prison just a few months after his mother had passed and struggled to conceptualize what home could be without her. He moved into Legacy Apartments a few months later and what seemed a godsend soon turned into a nightmare. Plumbing, heating, and basic repairs were all neglected.
With so many stories of predatory city-approved development deals and the local government’s continued inaction in the face of the housing crisis this question feels impossible to answer.
Urban Schaefer, an organizer with Heart Village Mobile Homes Union, shares a housing struggle rooted in the prison system. A year ago, Jackson County alerted residents of Heart Village that they would need to move to make way for a new jail.
This arrived with false promises that the city would help residents relocate. “I was on the busline, I knew my neighbors, we could help each other,” he shared. It was a home in all senses of the word. “They thought we wouldn’t fight back,” Schaefer said, “They were wrong.”
The Heart Village Mobile Homes Union doubled the baseline assistance from the county, received six months of rent cancellation, and won a $2.7 million relocation package. A 65-year-old veteran with COPD, Schaefer has found these wins in spite of medical limitations and lies from county officials.
Many at Heart Village share accessibility struggles that have made moving impossible and still face eviction. “We’re still not done,” Schaefer told the crowd. They will continue fighting for those at Heart Village.
Speakers emphasized the basic dignity that unionizing efforts have restored to their housing situations. Taking action against dorm floods that left their rooms and possessions destroyed, UMKC students Tylan Olamiju and Maddy Bremer have helped to organize 20% of the school’s tenants. “I am the ideal person for a UMKC pamphlet, but at the end of the day I am a quick moneymaker,” Olamiju said.
“UMKC is a real estate company first and a school second. They are one of the leading landowners and gentrifiers in KC. We read our rental contract and it says that UMKC is not a landlord and we are not tenants. This is how they get around local or state tenant protections.”
UMKC Tenant Union efforts have resulted in more staff for campus housing, preventative maintenance programs, better communication, and financial compensation from the floods. “UMKC’s treatment of their tenants is shameful, but we are changing it,” Bremer said.
Pat Lucas of the Midtown Tenants Union gave the last testimonial of the afternoon. After 17 years, she was told a new owner had purchased her property and she and her neighbors had 30 days to move.
At first she was skeptical, but the Midtown Tenant Union ultimately gave Lucas the ability to speak up for both her and her neighbors. Lucas is part of the team that recently blocked MAC properties from receiving a $10.5 million tax incentive for further development in midtown. The money will instead go into the city’s Housing Trust Fund. “A union is home. It’s knowing your neighbors. It’s telling the truth. It’s fighting back. It’s winning,” Lucas said. “Every tenant deserves a union.”
The rally melted into a dance party as The Salvation Choir played a few more songs and KC Tenant leaders prepared to canvas the neighborhood. Watching KC Tenants events grow over the past few years, 10,000 organizers seems not only possible but the only proper response to the question, “Does my city feel like home?”
Those interested can join KC Tenants by going to KCTenants.org/member and those in need of immediate housing assistance or advocacy can call the KC Tenants hotline at (816) 533-5435.