Ashley Johnson
Ashley Johnson

Ashley Johnson is a 36-year-old mother of three living in Kansas City, Missouri. She has personally faced housing insecurity during the pandemic and also works as an organizer with the Kansas City Tenants Union to help protect and organize residents at risk of eviction.

Ahead of Election Day, COURIER spoke to five Americans who’ve been impacted by COVID-19 in one way or another. Read more of their stories here.

When Ashley Johnson, 36, and her children emerged from what she described as a complicated domestic situation last year, they moved into a privately owned transitional house in Kansas City, Missouri. Their spot in the home offered them some stability as she sought to move ahead with her life. 

But then the coronavirus pandemic hit, other residents in the house began falling behind on their rent. Johnson was still making her $500 monthly payments, but as other tenants failed to pay, the building manager tried to raise Johnson’s rent to $800 per month. Johnson couldn’t afford the rent hike, and the manager ultimately opted to shut the house down and try to force Johnson out using any means necessary. She issued an illegal eviction filing, which was dismissed, and tried to pressure Johnson to leave as well.

“She removed the stove, washer, and dryer—basically made the house uninhabitable,” Johnson told COURIER. “She took it upon herself to put me and my children’s belongings out.”

Johnson left the transitional house at the end of August, before she could legally be evicted, and has since bounced between short-term Airbnb rentals. That instability and lack of housing security has taken a significant toll. 

“I’m not 100% for my children,” Johnson said. “My heart bleeds out for my children because they’re not seeing the best part of mom. They’re seeing that mom needs to rest more, or [is] ‘grumpy mom’ as my toddler calls me. ‘Are we happy today?’ he asks me.”

Johnson’s experience is part of the reason she works as an organizer for the Kansas City Tenants Union, a multi-generational, anti-racist organization based in Jackson County, Missouri. The organization is led by poor and working-class tenants seeking to ensure that everyone in the city has access to “safe, accessible, and truly affordable home.”

“I’m not 100% for my children. My heart bleeds out for my children because they’re not seeing the best part of mom. They’re seeing that mom needs to rest more, or [is] ‘grumpy mom’ as my toddler calls me.”

“KC Tenants and other grassroots organizations believe people that are closest to the problems are closest to the solutions,” Johnson said. The organization asks vulnerable renters, like Johnson, to get out there, share their stories, organize other tenants, and fight for policies that will improve their lives.

“Housing is a human right,” Johnson said. “If you don’t have a house, how can you live if you don’t have nowhere to live? Food, clothes, and shelter—those are human necessities.”

Prior to the pandemic, the organization had released its own housing platform and a tenants’ bill of rights. Their work, however, has taken on even more urgency in recent months. Jackson County issued an eviction moratorium in March, but it expired on May 31 and was not extended. 

Since then, there have been more than 1,700 eviction filings in the city, according to the group’s data. On Sept. 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a national moratorium on evictions for rent nonpayment through Dec. 31. But that moratorium does not protect all tenants, and nearly 300 of those eviction filings have come since that order went into effect on Sept. 4. 

Statewide, as many as 361,000 households could be at risk of eviction when the moratorium ends, according to the KC Tenants Union. Nationwide, as many as 40 million Americans could be evicted in the coming months.

In order to protect at-risk tenants, the organization is calling for rent and mortgage cancelation for at least three to six more months, Johnson said. They acknowledge that property owners need help, too, but don’t think it should come at the expense of tenants. Instead, Johnson believes the government needs to step up and prioritize human life and safety, instead of money. 

She’s skeptical they will, however, unless they’re pushed by organizations like the KC Tenants Union. “The government doesn’t care,” she said bluntly.

The organization has taken many steps to try and prevent evictions and build pressure on the government. “We’ve talked to our mayor, we’ve done several rallies, and several actions,” Johnson said. The American Civil Liberties Union also filed a lawsuit on behalf of the group against Jackson County Judge David Byrn, alleging his administrative order implementing the CDC’s moratorium actually violates the CDC directive and allows eviction cases to proceed.

The action that got the most attention, however, took place on Oct. 15, when KC Tenants Union organizers chained themselves to courthouse doors to prevent eviction cases from being heard.

The incident attracted national attention, providing the union an opportunity to call attention to what’s happening in their city. 

Johnson said her work with the union takes a toll, but she feels obligated to keep fighting. 

“I feel like if I’m not in this fight and not in this work, there’s not going to be a real good future,” she said. “If I’m not here fighting for this and holding City Hall accountable … my kids don’t have a future.”

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