Banking on the Land Bank to curb blight in Kansas City
The Kansas City Star
Vacant, nuisance properties have become Kansas City’s latter-day plague, a kind of urban gangrene that can create a chronic downdraft in property values. In neighborhoods where the problem is severe, vacant houses draw rats, squatters, drug dealers, vandals and midnight dumpers.
It’s a long-term problem, one that can only be eased with a long-term fix built into the workings of local government. So far, the city has had, at best, only mixed success in dealing with the problem. A receivership ordinance approved a couple of years ago has had little effect so far. But a new agency made possible in 2012 offers hope of progress.
Authorized by a state law enacted during the summer, the city has created a Land Bank that began formal operations recently with adoption of bylaws. City officials and the agency’s new five-member board must move quickly in 2013 to get up to speed and begin moving vacant properties off the tax rolls and into the hands of tax-paying owners.
In the coming months, the Kansas City Land Bank will receive all of the Jackson County Land Trust properties within the city limits — up to 4,000 pieces of real estate, most of them vacant lots. Unlike Land Trust, the Land Bank has more power to take control of properties and get them into the hands of competent, taxpaying owners.
The Land Bank will have significant revenue sources, including proceeds from real estate sales and the first three years of property taxes from new owners. In the future, it may have the power to issue bonds on its own authority.
If all goes well, over time the number of nuisance properties should begin to fall and the city’s annual expense for maintaining them — such as mowing vacant lots — will drop as well.
“I think we have the tools we need,” said David Park, deputy director of the Neighborhoods and Housing Services Department.
The estimated number of vacant, nuisance properties has bounced around in recent years. In 2009, officials put the number of vacant houses at about 4,000. Last year, a Federal Reserve estimate was 12,000, which is also the number of turned-off water hookups.
Still, some homes may be vacant simply because they’re between tenants. So during the summer, Park said his department sent out inspectors to get a more accurate count. The question was which homes were vacant but also had a code violation, indicating neglect. The total came to around 7,000.
Any way you slice it, a number of that magnitude is a major problem, degrading the city’s ability to draw money and people and build up its tax base. The first step in city-building is encouraging the people you have to stay and invest where they are — always a tough sell in bleak neighborhoods of mostly vacant lots, or areas blighted by decaying houses.
Officials must take steps to ensure that Kansas City’s Land Bank avoids the traps of corruption and favoritism that in the past marred the record of some non-profits that strayed from the mission of improving city neighborhoods.
Soon after signing the Land Bank bill this summer, Gov. Jay Nixon said the new agency would “be able to rehab vacant homes and turn deserted buildings into a viable asset for economic development.” By this time in 2013, the Land Bank should be able to report that it has begun moving properties off the tax rolls and into the hands of new owners — and at a steadily increasing pace.