By LESLIE COLLINS
July 10, 2013
In Kansas City, weeds are only the beginning to the number of eyesores that some choose to ignore. Beyond the unruly weeds are falling gutters, broken steps, sagging roofs, piles of trash.
There’s a mounting number of property code violations and Kansas City is now faced with addressing literally thousands of abandoned and vacant properties.
“They’re located in areas of the city that have been losing population for decades now,” said David Park, deputy director of the city of Kansas City’s Housing and Neighborhood Services department and executive director of Kansas City’s newly established land bank. “So, these are in areas where we’re not likely to have that trend change enough for 5,000 families to move in to occupy these houses.”
In the meantime, neighborhoods are stuck with the eyesores and apathetic absentee landlords.
“Most of them don’t care, so they don’t take care of their properties,” said Leslie Caplan, president of the Scarritt Renaissance Neighborhood Association. “That’s the frustrating part that we even have to worry about other people’s properties. It’s the whole idea of the broken windows theory. If you have a broken window, people say, ‘Oh, people don’t care,’ and the second window gets broken. And on and on it goes. It’s really important to stay on top of these things because all types of violations affect the property values in the neighborhood.”
To help cities like Kansas City address the issue of property code enforcement, the Greater Kansas City Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) hosted a meeting June 17 led by Doug Leeper, a national expert on code enforcement who’s consulted with more than 400 cities across the U.S.
“Code enforcement is one of those things that has really great potential to do interesting things; there are some very practical solutions, but it’s also one of the toughest things to get done from the perspective of city government,” said Julie Seward of LISC.
Leeper said he’s heard the same complaints from cities small and large – there’s not enough staff, not enough resources or funding. There’s always a need for additional staff, but cities must ensure their code enforcement process is efficient and not redundant, he said. Leeper also stressed the importance of keeping the property code violation process transparent to citizens, which Kansas City already does through it’s 3-1-1 call center. Residents who call in receive a case number and may call back or check online to track the progress of their complaint. Kansas City is currently updating the 3-1-1 software to make it more user friendly and streamlined.
“(The city) cutting weeds or removing trash doesn’t solve the problem,” Leed said. “It’s a short-term, temporary solution. I call it putting a Band-Aid on a chest wound. It may look and feel good for a short period of time, but it does not solve the problem.”
Demolition isn’t necessarily a long-term solution either due to the upkeep of mowing and weed eating the property, he said. What is needed is the long-term solution of rehabbing and re-occupying homes or finding creative and sustainable re-uses for those structures, he said. Sometimes, that requires a change in ownership, he said.
In California, if property owners repeatedly fail to pay the fines and penalties associated with property codes violations, the city can place a lien on their tax refund and can also put a lien in their name to prevent them from obtaining future loans. The state of Louisiana recently passed SB 51, which gives cities the ability to recoup costs through due process by placing a lien on the property and finally foreclose on the property and sell it on the courthouse steps if the owner repeatedly fails to fix the property code violations and fails to pay the fines and penalties.
“They’re recovering their costs. The properties are transferring,” he said.
A number of the properties are sold to first-time homebuyers or are becoming rentals, and it’s putting money back in the city coffers, he said.
Kansas City is also working to transfer its land bank properties into the hands of responsible homeowners who will rehabilitate the property and maintain it.
Currently, there are more than 3,600 properties for sale through the land bank and 588 of those properties are located in Historic Northeast. Approved by the Missouri General Assembly last summer, the land bank’s purpose is to connect abandoned, blighted and foreclosed upon property to responsible homebuyers. Ideally, properties must sell for two-thirds of the market value, but exceptions are made. One example is the side-lot program. If the property is under 2,500 square feet, the adjacent property owner can buy the property for a dollar; if it’s between 2,500 and 6,000 square feet, the adjacent owner can purchase the property for $75, or can purchase the adjacent property that’s up to 6,500 square feet for 8 cents per square foot. The land bank can also lease properties for uses like a community garden. Other advantages of the land bank include being able to accept property donations, which the Jackson County Land Trust could not. The land bank can also bid on properties or negotiate with owners to purchase a property; back taxes and liens don’t have to be paid back on the property and the first three years of taxes collected on the sold property go directly back to the land bank. To purchase a property, a background check must be completed and potential buyers must meet other requirements, along with submitting a plan detailing how the property will be used and proving they have the resources to complete the project.
In terms of property code enforcement, Kansas City is continuing to see success through its volunteer inspector program, where trained volunteers snap photos of minor code violations on vacant properties and send them to the city, Park said. Several Scarritt Renaissance residents received training and call 3-1-1 on a regular basis regarding repeat offenders. Because of the high call volume from Scarritt Renaissance, city staff met with the neighborhood and began giving the neighborhood priority.
“If we hadn’t had their willingness to act on what we gave them, then I don’t know if it would have been as helpful as it has been,” Caplan said of the city.
“Sometimes the neighborhood volunteers and inspectors can be more effective than a code enforcement officer,” Park said. “It’s like adding resources at no cost to us.”
Both the Scarritt Renaissance and Ivanhoe neighborhoods began sending letters to residents with persistent, multiple property code violations, kindly informing the residents of the violations and what could happen if they don’t comply.
“I got a phone call from a man in response to one of those letters – ‘I got your letter. I didn’t know anybody cared,“ said Margaret J. May, executive director of the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council. “There are a lot of people out there who live in the neighborhood and they’re just doing it because they think nobody cares.“
Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council has acquired lots at 38th and Euclid and will soon build seven duplexes there, thanks to funding from James B. Nutter and LISC. The neighborhood also acquired several vacant houses and is searching for responsible homeowners.
“It’s a very good feeling,” May said. “It’s a beginning for us. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to what our plan will be.”
To further encourage property code compliance, the city is working with the finance department to send uncollected fines to collection agencies, which would go on the homeowner’s credit record. The city also wants to utilize state statutes to sue a property owner to collect on judgements. If the property owner doesn’t pay, then the city would request that the judge order the property to be sold as a way of recovering the judgement.
“It still boils down to money and resources,” Park said. “I feel like I’ve got all the tools in the tool belt.”
Park compared the lack of funding to having a fully equipped fire truck, but only having half a tank of gas to fight fires for the entire month.
Having $1.5 million isn’t enough for mowing, he said, and there’s only $1.8 million in the budget for demolitions. That’s enough for about 70 properties, he said.
On the upside, housing is cheaper, and he’s hopeful that the younger generation will take advantage of the affordable housing, beginning to fill those vacant properties. Styles change, he said, and people are becoming less enthused about the beige houses and chain stores in the suburbs. Kansas City offers a variety of local stores and restaurants, along with a diverse housing stock. Kansas City has changed its policies regarding gardening restrictions and raising chickens on residential property as an effort to encourage even more people to take advantage of Kansas City. What the city also needs is positive reinforcement from its citizens.
“Speak positively about your neighborhoods, look for the positive aspects,“ Park said. “If you complain about your neighborhood a lot, you’re preventing other people from considering it as a place to live.”