Kansas City renters establish citywide tenants’ union
The Tenants Awakening Rally organized on May 7 by the K.C. Tenants Union. | Darrin Arnold / People's World

KANSAS CITY, Mo.—“A union means we are stronger together than we are as individuals,” said Maya Neal, the master of ceremonies at the “Tenant Awakening” rally on Saturday, May 7.

At the event, the K.C. Tenants organization, a conglomeration of multiple tenants groups across the Kansas City Area, announced that they were formally launching a citywide tenants’ union.

Neal led off a number of speakers who shared stories of dealing with oppressive and incompetent landlords. In Neal’s case, the only way she could afford rent was to send her son to live with her grandmother. The unaffordably high rents she and her comrades in the union pay purchase them living conditions hardly better than 19th-century tenement standards.

Phillip Washington, addressing the rally, described horrid conditions that his landlord at Legacy Apartments in Kansas City refused to fix.“My plumbing, heating…the landlord wouldn’t fix sh-t, so I had to do it myself.” In spite of this, Washington was evicted and presently finds himself homeless.

Washington expressed the futility that many in the working-class experience, both in trying to find housing and on the job: “No matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t get ahead.” He expressed the hope that Neal and the other speakers talked about—that through collective action, they could right these injustices. “It takes an awakening,” he said.

Following his speech, Washington told People’s World that what he is fighting for is “accountability on both ends,” which is what he hopes for in winning a union.

Each of the speakers, who represented a range of ages, ethnicities, and sexual orientations, told stories of how, through prior tenant organizing, they were able to win victories against their landlords.

Irvin Schaeffer, a 65-year-old Marine Corps veteran with COPD told of how Jackson County purchased the land on which the Heart Mobile Village, his mobile home community in Kansas City, had stood for over 50 years with the intention of building a prison. But by organizing, he and his fellow residents were able to win a $7.7 million relocation package, plus six months of rent-free living.

The victory was impressive, but some Heart Mobile Village tenants have not yet received anything, and there are still evictions pending for the handful of people who remain.

Still, Neal said, “What the other side had in power, in money, and in access, we have in people…. It’s not magic, it’s organizing!”

The organization of a new citywide tenants’ union comes as Mac Properties—a major real estate firm that undertakes apartment renovations in Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago—continues its push to gentrify the neighborhood surrounding the Armour Tower Apartment Building, the site of the Tenant Awakening Rally.

Darrin Arnold / People’s World

Mac Properties had previously been hailed by city leaders for rejuvenating Section 8 housing in the poorest parts of Kansas City. Nevertheless, as Neal described the situation: “Mac likes to act like the saviors of our neighborhood, the stewards of a beautiful midtown, but that is only if you consider saviorism causing the Black population to decrease by 21%. Mac is nobody’s savior; they are gentrifiers!”

Pat Lucas, another rally speaker, described the nuts and bolts of this “rejuvenation.” She described Mac’s purchase of the Armour Flats Apartments: “After 17 years, they told me we all had to move. A new owner came in and said, ‘We’re raising the rent by a hundred dollars,’ and then they said, ‘You got thirty days…. I’m on a fixed income, I just can’t up and move like that!”

The aim of Mac Properties, which in 2020 fought to overturn eviction moratoriums at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been to price residents out of the neighborhood as it currently is and then gentrify what is left.

Maya Neal described the conditions faced by those who remained: “Since I moved in, I have been without heat, I have been locked out, I have had a hole in my closet that a bird got through and died on my floor, I have been retaliated against for organizing my neighbors. This is all since January.”

Neal called on residents to move beyond tenant organizing into “building the world we deserve.” She referred to her co-organizers as “comrades,” signaling the intention to win a world in which the working class dictates the terms of its own liberation.


Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller is an Ordained Priest in the Celtic-Rite Old Catholic Church. He co-hosts the podcasts "A Pastor and a Priest Walk Into a Movie Theater" and "Blessed Lunatics," for the New Faith New Media network. He has written "On the Compatibility of Christianity and Marxism" for Political Affairs and served on the Communist Party USA's Religion Commission.