KMUW | By Celia Hack
Retaliatory evictions are technically illegal, but some Wichita city officials say they happen anyway.
It all started with the windows at Alvin Mitchell’s rental house, which he said were cemented shut.
Mitchell said his brother, concerned, called the city of Wichita to inspect the Planeview duplex.
“I’m his little brother,” Mitchell said. “He’s going to look out for me.”
In late July of last year, a city inspector came out to look at the house. The inspector listed a multitude of code violations the landlord needed to fix by the end of August: the windows, doors, walls, ceilings and floors all needed to be repaired or replaced.
The city returned in October and left more notes. The kitchen floor was sinking. The back door threshold needed repair. The kitchen and living room ceiling needed to be fixed. The landlord would have another month to do so.
About 10 days after the city issued the October notice, Mitchell received a notice that his landlord, Socvansneha Danh, wanted to terminate his month-to-month lease, a step toward eviction.
“He’ll evict you as soon as the city comes,” Mitchell said of Danh.
In Kansas, it is illegal for landlords to evict because their tenant has complained to a government agency that enforces building or housing codes. But in Sedgwick County, which handles one-third of evictions in the state, some government officials say they often see it happen.
Danh maintains that the notice he placed on Mitchell’s door was not in retaliation for calling the city. He said he tried numerous times to fix the damages in the house, but that Mitchell wouldn’t let the repairman in or was absent when the repairman came. He added that to make the repairs, he needed Mitchell to move his furniture but Mitchell did not.
“I tried working with him for countless months, but it was just not working out as he always comes with excuses for the repairman to not come in,” Danh wrote in an email to KMUW. “In the end, I gave him the 30 day notice because I needed him to move out so I can fix the property. I told him that he can move back when I’m done with the repairs too.”
Retaliatory evictions are illegal, but some say common
Wichita City Council member Brandon Johnson said the city doesn’t keep data on retaliatory evictions. But he hears about it frequently enough that whenever constituents complain to him about code violations in their homes, he warns them about complaining to the city.
“I tell them that by us showing up to inspect and or writing up the property owner, you risk a potential retaliation, because it’s true,” Johnson said.
He said he’s seen landlords bring up past lease violations, like late rent payments, to legally evict a tenant who complains to the city.
“If there’s anything in that agreed lease that has been violated at some point, but that landlord let it go, they can bring that back up to evict you,” Johnson said. “And it’s happened.”
Steve Minson, a Kansas Legal Services attorney who represents tenants in eviction proceedings, said it’s typically up to the tenant or their lawyer to raise the issue of retaliation in court. And most tenants, he said, don’t have lawyers.
Chris Labrum is the director of Sedgwick County’s Metropolitan Area Building and Construction Department. He said his department sees circumstances where both landlords and tenants retaliate against each other, but tenants tend to be at more of a disadvantage.
“The tenants are upset, they’re nervous, they’re worried, they don’t want to get in trouble,” Labrum said.
Labrum encourages tenants to abide by their lease and document maintenance requests to landlords or property managers in writing. If they suspect there is a building code violation, he advised them to report it to his department.
“If they’re valid violations, then we have some ability to help protect them from reprisal,” Labrum said.
Kevin Kimmell, vice president of the Association of Kansas Landlords, has been a landlord for 50 years. He said he’s never heard of anyone in his association or immediate company that has participated in a retaliatory eviction.
An apartment turnover can cost between $1,000 to $4,000, so Kimmell said landlords prevent vacancies to their best of their abilities.
“My acquaintances would not participate in that because if there was an issue and the people were good renters, they would fix the problem,” Kimmell said. “No thinking person is going to run off good tenants just because they won’t fix the water heater.”
A Planeview native moves out
Mitchell said he was current on rent, despite significant flaws with the house. Walking through the duplex in December, he pointed them out.
His shower had a sheet of wood on its outer wall, which appeared to be rotting from water. The kitchen floor felt like it was sinking. Mitchell placed boards against walls around the house in an attempt to keep rats from coming through.
Mitchell, 61, said he was born and raised in Planeview. He said he makes a living by scrapping, hauling metal and cleaning out homes.
“Trying to stay afloat, you know what I’m saying?” Mitchell said. “… I want to come home and be able to open something without it already being open by a rat.”
He pointed out how rats had gotten into his noodles. The home, which Mitchell paid about $375 a month in rent for, is appraised at $29,100.
Fortunately for Mitchell, he was connected with Minson, a lawyer at Kansas Legal Services. Minson said month-to-month tenants like Mitchell are particularly vulnerable for retaliation.
“The landlord can always wait a few months and then terminate the lease and say I didn’t do this because you called the city, I did it because I want a new tenant in there,” Minson said.
But Minson said Mitchell had a defensible case that the 30-day notice was retaliatory. Instead of going to court, Minson was able to work out a settlement with Danh. Mitchell got paid around $1,000 to leave his house in Planeview and find a new one.
“It was enough for me,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell’s former next-door neighbor, Chauncey Kemp, is the president of Planeview’s neighborhood association. Kemp said Mitchell moved into the Planeview home over a decade ago, around the same time Kemp moved in.
“I hate to see him go,” Kemp said. “He is reliable, he’s helpful, just all around good guy.”
District court records from October, November and December of 2022 show that an eviction case was never filed in court against Mitchell, despite the notice on his door.
More than seven months after the city first inspected the Planeview house, it’s still listed as an open case on the Metropolitan Area Building and Construction Department’s complaint portal. The city has extended compliance for the landlord five times since last July.
Tenants facing retaliation should seek legal assistance, Minson said. Those who cannot afford a lawyer can call Kansas Legal Services or attend their free weekly self-help center.
The headline and body of this story was updated to reflect that Mitchell received a 30-day notice to terminate the lease and leave the property, not an eviction notice.
This article was republished here with the permission of: KMUW