The Abandoned Housing Act of Missouri declares that houses should have running water and working electricity and gas. However, not all houses in the Historic Northeast community have these necessities.
Abandoned houses in the Indian Mound Neighborhood raise a lot of concern with community members as they create safety concerns to neighbors. One of the biggest concerns is the number of “squatters” abandoned houses draw to the urban neighborhood – people who have become displaced for any number of reasons, leaving them to seek shelter in unoccupied properties.
Vacant lots or buildings with a dangerous label and boarded up windows can be seen on a number of blocks within the neighborhood. The City encourages owners of these neglected lots to tend to their property in order to keep the community safe and healthy, but landowners have often done little upkeep.
This negligence doesn’t sit well with some neighbors who live next to an abandoned property, like Teresa Powell. She lives near the 300 block of North White Avenue where vacant lots and boarded up houses have sat empty for years.
“I don’t understand why they don’t do anything about it,” Powell said. “Somebody could fix it up or house some people that need housing instead of leaving it vacant. Because then you leave everybody in the neighborhood at a higher risk, because other squatters are breaking in and stuff like that.”
Along with Powell, other community members have expressed their frustration toward the City, but to no avail. Many properties can still be seen with neglected lawns, mounds of garbage and signs of mistreated property.
Fellow Indian Mound resident Chris Daily agreed with Powell that these houses should be handled by the City. Some of the properties raising concerns are owned by the City and are Land Bank properties.
“It definitely concerns me that no one is taking care of the property,” Daily said. “I have contacted the City several times about the trash and the tall grass and they seem to not care about it. I do believe the neighborhood association has some people that want to rehab the house, but I don’t think it’s in any condition to be rehabbed. I think it needs to be knocked down.”
Daily, who lives next to abandoned property on the 400 block of North Bellaire Avenue, also raised concerns about fire hazards and other dangers that people seeking shelter pose.
“I’m concerned that someone is going to go in there and catch it on fire like several other houses in the neighborhood have been caught on fire by vagrants,” Daily said.
Jason Speitzer, the Kansas City Fire Department’s Public Information Officer, said there are more house fires in abandoned homes than there are in occupied homes.
In reporting the house fires, Speitzer said it is up to the neighborhood to say something. The fire department can only determine if a house is abandoned after the fire. After that, they notify the City’s Neighborhoods Department about the dangerous building.
The responsibility for dangerous buildings is part of the department’s Neighborhood Preservation Division whose goal is to ensure homes cannot pose immediate danger to the surrounding neighborhoods or commercial structures.
After notifying the department, Speitzer said they turn the case over to a team of investigators.
“The team of investigators is going to make a decision of cause. If the cause is undetermined, the case will go to arson for more investigation,” Speitzer said. “After that, we will turn it over to dangerous buildings who will board [the fire-ridden building] up.”
Overall, Speitzer said prevention of house fires is key. He encourages neighborhoods to call 311 if there are codes violations or to call 911 if the activity needs emergency services.
“Our goal is to provide the best service we can for the neighbors because we live there too,” Speitzer said. “We want to be good stewards of our neighbors.”
According to Indian Mound Neighborhood Association President Manny Abarca, the City doesn’t have responsibility for each abandoned property in the neighborhood, so there’s not much it can do.
“I won’t say that it’s necessarily their lack of engagement or responsibility as much as it is the person who owns the home,” Abarca said. “I think there’s more responsibility there, and the vagrancy that they’re creating by purchasing and sitting on these properties and being out-of-state ownership and all of these other challenges, I think that the onus lies there, not necessarily on the city.”
While relatively straightforward solutions are available for City-owned properties, privately owned properties have to go through a legal process. Abarca said that out-of-state owners are sitting on these properties but are failing to invest in their maintenance.
Outside of the concerns raised by neighbors, the City has to consider financial complications regarding these parcels.
Spokesperson for the Kansas City, Mo., Neighborhoods Department John Baccala, shared the same sentiment as Daily in terms of which houses deserve rehabilitation and which should just be removed. Baccala said that the average price for home demolition floats around $9,000 in a bidding war between the City and demolition contractors.
With several steps and precautions required for demolition, the City does its best to find another method of handling these properties.
“Demolition is always our last option as reconstruction is often at least twice the cost than to rehab what may exist,” Abarca said. “We will do everything we can to save every house no matter how challenging the property may be.”
According to the Abandoned Housing Act, there is an avenue for neighbors to take an adjacent property and make it an addition to their own property for a garden or extra storage. If a property were to be turned into a garden, it would have to be run through the neighborhood association, making sure it fits the neighborhood’s needs.
Abarca said the issue with this, however, is a lack of funding and the potential rise in property values for people in the neighborhood.
“The other challenge we want to try to eliminate is creating an opportunity for infill housing to raise property values dramatically, like what’s happening on the West Side,” Abarca said. “So, we’ve taken those approaches as we look into what to do with our vacant lots.”
Both City officials and Indian Mound residents are pushing to improve their neighborhood. Neighborhood residents like Powell and Dailey said their concerns have continued to be ignored by officials, while the City said they have done all they can regarding abandoned houses in the area.
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