By SHERMAN SMITH
TOPEKA — A new judicial committee report on evictions in Kansas points to multiple problems with a complex, fast-paced legal system for ousting tenants who fail to pay their rent.
Three-fourths of eviction filings are resolved through procedural errors, an indicator of the ignorance tenants and landlords have with the legal process, the report found. Under the strain of the pandemic, courts failed to mitigate widespread confusion and misunderstanding about the availability of $300 million in federal aid administered by the state, half of which went unused.
The report recommended judges tell tenants early in the process that they can fight their eviction and that rental aid may be available to them. Other recommendations include targeting high schoolers with programs designed to educate them about the landlord-tenant relationship before they sign their first lease.
The committee also applied for a grant to install a program in Sedgwick County, which accounts for one-third of the state’s eviction filings, where an evictions facilitator could try to resolve disputes outside of the legal system.
The Kansas Supreme Court established the committee to examine best practices in anticipation of a spike in evictions after state and federal moratoriums expired in October 2021. Judge Sarah Warner, of the Kansas Court of Appeals, led the committee, which included judges, trial clerks, attorneys who routinely represent tenants and property owners, and representatives of landlords in Wichita and Hays. The 29-page report, dated April 20, was released on Wednesday.
The committee examined the evictions process and court filings going back to the 12-month fiscal year that ended in June 2017. The panel found that tenants didn’t respond to half the filings, resulting in an automatic judgment for the landlords. A quarter of the cases were dismissed because property owners had not provided a three-day notice required under state law for a tenant to come up with overdue rent.
Courts reported about 14,500 eviction filings per year in the three years before the pandemic, but no more than 150 cases went to trial in any of those years.
“The committee questions the wisdom and equity of this judicial model, which relies, at least in part, on litigants’ ignorance to stay afloat,” the report said.
Vince Munoz, of Rent Zero Kansas, a coalition that advocates for tenants, questioned the findings and recommendations of the committee because its members didn’t include a tenant, or anybody who has been evicted.
“It’s really hard to understate how significant of an oversight that is,” Munoz said. “For people who experience an eviction, when the court case is done, that’s when the impact starts on their life. For all the attorneys involved, it’s all over when the judge bangs the gavel or releases the opinion.”
He also said the report misses a broader point about the number of informal evictions that happen in Kansas by landlords who disconnect utilities or otherwise harass tenants into leaving. Many landlords declined to renew leases as they expired during the pandemic, or refused to accept federal aid — loopholes in state and federal orders banning evictions, Munoz said. Those factors could help explain why most of Kansas didn’t see a spike in eviction filings after the moratoriums expired.
The data presented in the committee’s report also shows that Kansas courts continued to handle thousands of eviction cases while the moratoriums were in place.
“The courts don’t really serve tenants’ interests,” Munoz said. “They serve those who are already powerful in the situation, and they just kind of sanitize and formalize landlord power over tenants.”
The judicial committee report, however, is critical of how some courts handle evictions and sympathetic to the challenges presented to tenants throughout a legal process that is designed to last no more than six weeks.
After a landlord provides a three-day notice for overdue rent, and the three days lapse without payment, the landlord can file an eviction petition in district court. The tenant has 14 days to respond. If the tenant disputes the allegation, a trial is set within 14 days. If the property owner prevails at trial, the court will order the tenant to be removed within 14 days.
Tenants may choose not to contest an eviction because they know they are unable to pay rent, the report found, or because they feel overwhelmed and don’t understand that they have the right to contest the eviction.
Tenants also didn’t know the rental assistance was available, or that it could be used even after the landlord had filed an eviction. Some judges asked the parties at trial if they had considered trying to get rental aid, but attorneys said that information needed to be presented early in the process — especially since so few cases reach trial.
One judge balked at the idea of notifying parties that funds were available, because it could be viewed as providing legal advice. Others on the committee rejected the concern.
The committee took interest in a program in Monroe County, Indiana, where the district court employs an evictions facilitator who answers questions for property owners and tenants, provides information about federal aid, and is available to act as a mediator if the two sides are willing to resolve the case outside of court.
“As one committee member who manages rental properties observed, it is in everyone’s best interest if a tenant continues to live in the property and a property owner continues to be paid under the lease,” the report said.
The committee applied for grant through National Center for State Courts to establish a similar program in Sedgwick County that could serve as a toolkit across the state.
Unlike other areas of the state, eviction filings significantly increased in Sedgwick County after moratoriums were lifted. While the rest of the state saw filings last fall merely return to pre-pandemic levels, there was a 25% increase from pre-pandemic eviction cases in Sedgwick County. More cases in Sedgwick County result in default judgment for the property owner, and fewer cases go to trial.
Munoz said Sedgwick County established its own rental assistance program with federal aid, while the rest of the state was served by the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation.
Under the KHRC program, tenants and landlords can apply jointly for up to 18 months of assistance. Eligible households also may receive a lump sum of $900 in past-due or future internet assistance.
The organization’s general counsel served on the committee, and a spokeswoman said KHRC has now dispersed $196 million in rental aid.
“More than a third of Kansans rent their homes, and many have struggled to cover rent and utility bills since the pandemic began,” said Ryan Vincent, executive director of KHRC, in a news release in March. “The financial repercussions are far from over for our most vulnerable families. This crucial assistance is still available to keep Kansans safely housed throughout our economic recovery.”