What If City Renters Had More Political Power?
Kansas City tenants have formed a power base and are seeking equal footing with the forces that have traditionally defined how the city is governed.
In 2019, Andrea Bough was a first-time candidate for the Kansas City City Council and KC Tenants was a fledgling organization pushing a People’s Housing Platform focused on renter protections and more affordable housing.
At first blush, they didn’t seem like natural allies. Bough had built a career as a real estate attorney, helping developers navigate the local permitting process to build some of the biggest projects in Kansas City. KC Tenants was focused on chipping away at the influence of for-profit developers and building power for low-income renters. But Bough attended the group’s city council forum and got its hesitant endorsement over an opponent who was more openly hostile to its aims.
“I would suspect that in their minds I was the lesser of two evils,” Bough says.
Bough is now running for a second term and touting legislative achievements, including a law that gives tenants a right to legal representation in eviction proceedings, which she developed in partnership with KC Tenants and the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom. And she’s running with an enthusiastic “HELL YES” endorsement from KC Tenants Power, a partner organization to KC Tenants, which wrote in its new voter guide: “Because of her background, in 2019 we were worried that if she got elected, Bough might be an opponent. We are thrilled to report that we were wrong, and Bough has become a steadfast champion.”
KC Tenants Power’s 30-page voter guide for the April 4 municipal primary election displays a level of power-building ambition that goes far beyond getting a few allies elected to the city council. The organization pushes candidates to adopt a practice it calls “co-governance,” defined as “the process of consulting with the people most impacted by the issue at hand, ensuring those people are involved in the process every step of the way, amplifying their voices in and out of rooms they are invited into, voting alongside their demands, and giving them recognition, before, during and after, both publicly and directly.”
As the group expands its horizons beyond housing to issues like transit and public safety, it’s also seeking to redefine the role renters play in the political life of the city.
“We are not transient,” says Jenay Manley, a former KC Tenants leader who’s now running for a city council seat. “We’re not disengaged. We have been disengaged. People intentionally leave us out.”
Building Tenant Power
Manley, a single mother of nine-year-old twins, joined KC Tenants in the fall of 2019 after hearing a friend speak at one of their events and realizing that lots of people were struggling to pay for basic needs like housing, and that it was a reflection of problems with the system rather than failures of individuals. She became the group’s City Hall liaison just before the pandemic began. Over the following few years, she would watch city council committee hearings while working the overnight shift at QuikTrip, a convenience store. Manley says she was watching partly to see what local leaders’ plan was to make sure people like her and her kids were OK during the pandemic.
“What I realized was they weren’t talking about people like me,” she says.
In its endorsement of Manley, KC Tenants Power noted that she helped lead a group of organizers that secured a $50 million housing bond, and wrote that she “is a damn good listener, negotiator, and relationship-builder.” (One of her opponents “has nothing about issues on her website, but does have the Realtor’s endorsement, so there’s that,” the guide says.) Wilson Vance, the political director for KC Tenants Power, says the group is working to build governing power for low-income tenants before Kansas City becomes completely unaffordable to them.
“Poor and working-class people have been shut out of public conversations for so long,” Vance says. “We’re just not in the rooms [where governing decisions are made], and when we are in the rooms, we’re patronized … The people who are invited into the rooms to play ball are those who have a financial interest in being in that room.”
Pushing for ‘Co-Governance’
KC Tenants Power didn’t invent the term "co-governance," but began refining it after Manley wrote a memo on the concept. The term "co-governance" or “collaborative governance” has been used to describe a range of practices aimed at building more robust democratic processes, says Hollie Russon Gilman, a senior fellow on the political reform team at New America, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C. That can include things like the growing practice of participatory budgeting, in which residents help make decisions about how public money is spent, or “citizens’ assemblies,” like one recently conducted in Petaluma, Calif., in which a representative sample of city residents were paid to help plan the future of a public fairground.
“This is still a very inchoate space and part of what we’re trying to [sort out] is what is co-governance and what isn’t co-governance?” Gilman says.
Practices that could be described as co-governance have come from inside and outside of government, Gilman says. Broadly, they reflect a desire to build two-way collaboration between citizens and lawmakers, and address a “crisis of legitimacy” for American institutions.
“We have a very anemic idea of democracy in the U.S. Every two to four years you elect someone, less than half your community votes, and OK, goodbye. That’s not satisfying to people, aside from the fact that it’s led to inequitable outcomes,” Gilman says. “I think there is a growing appetite [for collaboration], and it’s exciting to see people be open to deepening some of these relationships.”
KC Tenants Power urges candidates to sign a co-governance pledge, with seven clearly defined bullet points. Some candidates and elected officials have claimed to be confused or turned off by the concept of co-governance as a potential blow to their independence, Vance says. But in those instances, KC Tenants Power reminds officials that co-governance is part of a spectrum of very common practices, like when councilmembers consult developers and their attorneys before passing zoning bills, or when state lawmakers back model legislation written by interest groups.
“When people say, ‘This is a new concept to me,’ I say, ‘You know what? I actually think you’ve been co-governing with corporations and people who stand to make a profit off of our community for a long time,” Vance says.
When it came to the tenant right to counsel bill that Bough sponsored, she says KC Tenants wrote the bill in partnership with the Heartland Center and other groups and shared it with her office. Bough shared it with the city law department and helped identify cosponsors, while communicating the “brightline issues” that KC Tenants wouldn’t compromise on. They strategized together over who would publicly testify in favor.
“That really was kind of the epitome of co-governing,” Bough says. “A lot of people are afraid of that term — to some extent my campaign manager is afraid of that term — but that’s really what we do as legislators. We co-govern with the people.”