Neighborhood leaders stand up for Legal Aid of Western Missouri

By Leslie Collins
Northeast News
March 14, 2012

When city officials proposed cutting the budget of Legal Aid of Western Missouri (LAWMo), neighborhood leaders grew concerned. Losing the federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds would mean losing two neighborhood attorneys and the neighborhoods’ vital tool in addressing the surrounding blighted and vacant properties.

For more than 30 years, LAWMo has provided legal services for Kansas City, including neighborhood attorneys who file lawsuits on behalf of neighborhood associations and non-profits against homeowners with blighted, vacant and abandoned properties.

“Through court action, we can try to get those houses into the hands of people who do want to fix them up and have the capacity to fix them up and live in them,” LAWMo Managing Attorney Michael Duffy told Northeast News.

With the housing market crash, abandoned and vacant properties in Kansas City are becoming more of a problem, he said.

According to a recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, more than 12,000 abandoned lots or residential structures exist in Kansas City.

“Neighborhood leaders consistently tell us this is one of, if not the most important quality of life issue affecting the neighborhood, so we want to be able to provide a service,” he said.

A number of Northeast neighborhoods have utilized LAWMo’s services, including Indian Mound and Pendleton Heights.

Indian Mound Neighborhood Association currently has three pending court cases and is hoping the properties will be placed in the hands of responsible homeowners through the Abandoned Housing Act and urban homesteading.

“I think vacant, abandoned and blighted houses, next to trash, are the No. 1 problem in the Northeast,” Indian Mound Neighborhood Association President Katie Greer told Northeast News.

Those properties become a haven for criminal activity, whether through scrappers stripping houses, prostitution or drug dealings, she said.

“The vacant and abandoned properties send a visual signal that people don’t care, that it’s a neighborhood where people aren’t concerned about what’s going on around them,” Greer said. “It sends a signal that you can get away with anything you want.”

On average, LAWMo files 80 to 100 property related cases each year for Kansas City, LAWMo Executive Director Gregg Lombarti said during his testimony at the Feb. 29 city Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee meeting.

“Blighted and foreclosed properties in the urban core of Kansas City are a horrible cancer on the city,” Lombarti said. “Legal Aid is one of the most cost effective and beneficial sources the city has in dealing with this problem.”

Costs per court case averages $2,300, he said, and homeowners will often agree to perform the property rehabilitation themselves.

Through LAWMo, once blighted properties can become assets, providing homes for families through urban homesteading who may not have been able to afford a home otherwise, said Billie Robleado, long-time Pendleton Heights resident and past neighborhood association board member. Properties then become up-to-date on property taxes, thus providing more revenue for the city, she added.

LAWMo’s services allow neighborhoods to be proactive in addressing area blight, Greer said. Once one property is rehabbed, it can inspire other homeowners to improve their properties as well, she said.

“It has a positive snowball effect,” she said.

Not only has LAWMo helped Pendleton Heights address blight in the neighborhood, it’s also provided free legal advice – something the neighborhood association wouldn’t have been able to afford, Robleado said.

Proposed funding

LAWMo will no longer be funded through CDBG funds, said City Council member Scott Wagner. Instead, the proposal is to fund the organization through the city’s General Fund.

City council members decided to spread CDBG funds to more organizations, he explained. Using the city’s General Fund will protect LAWMo from being prone to the continued cuts in federal funding, he said.

In 2009, the city allocated $149,015 in CDBG funds for LAWMo, but by 2011, that number dropped to $130,095. This year, the city is proposing allocating $100,000 from the General Fund, a $30,000 cut.

That $30,000 cut could mean laying off a neighborhood attorney, Duffy said. LAWMo is searching for ways to reallocate funds and find new funding sources, but the threat of losing a neighborhood attorney still lingers.

“Less money means the less we can do,” Duffy said. “That means fewer cases we can bring in the community.”

For Town Fork Creek Neighborhood Association President Becky Forrest, less funding is unacceptable.

“Legal Aid has been a partner and a friend to our neighborhood. They have helped us facilitate demolition and sales of blighted properties, which has assisted with reducing crime and increasing the beautification in our community,” Forrest said. “Removing funding from Legal Aid removes possibilities from our community.”

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