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Can $1 Houses Help the Unhoused in Kansas City? Here’s What Nonprofit and City Leaders Have to Say

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Above image credit: code enforcement officer DeJuan Carpenter removes screws from the piece of wood blocking entry to 2404 Monroe Ave., a vacant home in the Land Bank Program. (Cody Boston | Flatland)
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5 minute read

Wielding a power drill in one hand, code enforcement officer DeJuan Carpenter said 2404 Monroe Ave. is one of the better-looking houses controlled by the Land Bank of Kansas City

Carpenter peeled back a piece of plywood with a spray-painted sign declaring, “Secured by the City of KCMO. No Trespassing.” 

DeJuan Carpenter, code enforcement officer with the Land Bank of Kansas City, poses with her power drill.
DeJuan Carpenter, code enforcement officer with the Land Bank of Kansas City, poses with her power drill. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho | Flatland)

Two steps in and the carpeted floor crunched with dirt and debris. A mountain of clothes and faded food wrappers trailed toward gaping holes in a stained hallway.  

This house is one of the 2,913 properties currently listed in the Land Bank program, which holds unclaimed vacant lots and abandoned homes that have gone through property tax foreclosures.

Despite the thousands of “properties” listed, not all of them are structures that can be rehabbed into homes, noted spokesman John Baccala. Some are vacant lots, while others are vacant houses in such bad shape that they would be too expensive to fix.

The Land Bank seeks to sell those properties, often at a fraction of normal fair market value. Some are listed as low as $29 and others upwards to $4,000, sometimes more.

But the house at 2404 Monroe is available for just $1, part of a special program that is offering more than 100 vacant homes to help Kansas City’s burgeoning unhoused or housing insecure population. The homes – largely in the third, fourth and fifth council districts – are considered in good enough condition to be fixed and rented.

2404 Monroe Ave. is a vacated house currently part of the $1 Land Bank program. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho | Flatland)
2404 Monroe Ave. is a vacant house currently available as part of the $1 Land Bank of Kansas City program. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho | Flatland)

“This is another innovative way of providing affordable housing for our most vulnerable residents, to eliminate blight, and to provide vital community services to people and neighborhoods across the city,” declared City Manager Brian Platt, when the program was announced on May 7. “We are seeking to partner with community organizations to rehabilitate these properties to quickly create permanent housing options.”

The city beckoned nonprofits, development groups and churches to respond to a request for proposals (RFP). The RFP asked new owners to fully rehab the space; create an affordable housing option; consult with the area’s neighborhood association; and connect new occupants with community resources such as social workers or other folks who help people get back on their feet.

While the city offered the houses for just $1, the onus to do the rest of the work was on the new owner. 

Initially, there was some interest. Baccala estimated that about 40 individuals toured the homes set aside for the $1 project. But he declined to provide the number of RFPs submitted. 

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While some nonprofits that focus on the unhoused population considered submitting an RFP, not all housing-focused nonprofits applied. 

Take Shalaunda Holmes with the Urban Neighborhood Initiative (UNI), for example. UNI is a community development group, staffed by only five people. They provide comprehensive support to keep communities safe and healthy by providing education and resources. 

UNI is also a leader in rehabbing vacant homes to help those who need it most. Their program is called “Vacant to Vibrant: the Vacant Properties Community Impact Initiative.” 

When the city presented the $1 Land Bank program, Holmes left one of the city’s workshops with questions. She decided to pass on applying. 

“I specifically did not go after this program for a number of reasons, but mainly we have a whole lot of other things in the hopper that we’re working on,” she said. “It’s a great idea, but I don’t think it was thought out very well strategically.” 

Rehabbing homes isn’t for the faint of heart, she explained. It can cost upwards of $150,000 to rehabilitate a house if it’s in decent condition. But there can be unknown, at times costly, surprises. 

She also worried about deferred maintenance costs, not to mention that it can take anywhere between six months to a year to rehab a house like the one on Monroe Avenue. Many of these homes are older, so they were built differently. That often means a new owner may need to call an architect to come inspect. She knows. She’s already renovating one Land Bank home (not part of the RFP mentioned above). 

“Sometimes it’s just cheaper to demo and not put all the money into renovating. That’s just the reality of that world,” Holmes added.  

As far as she knows, the city wasn’t offering additional money to help with renovations. 

Stephanie Boyer with ReStart echoed Holmes. Boyer also raised concerns about what it would cost people who couldn’t afford more than $300 to $400 per month of rent in the first place. 

“When you begin talking about $100,000 in repairs to bring the home up to a habitable state, that just doesn’t make sense,” Boyer said. “We don’t have enough avenues to subsidize.” 

Another point of contention has been the concept of integrating folks into mixed-income neighborhoods who may need to rely on voucher programs and other supportive services. 

The focus should also be on neighborhood stabilization through rehabilitation, said Erin Royals, who is the outreach coordinator with the Center for Neighborhoods at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. 

In addition to her work at the center, Royals also maps vacancy and its effects on neighborhoods for Marlborough Community Land Trust (MCLT). She’s found there’s a lost sense of community camaraderie in vacant or blighted areas. That’s what MCLT aims to rectify.  

She has seen first-hand how giving lower-income families a level playing field can help both the person and the neighborhood. 

In one instance, MCLT was able to help a 70-year-old man on a fixed income who needed a bigger home where he could raise his grandchildren. 

“Just because somebody is low- to moderate-income doesn’t mean that they should be living in something that’s lower quality. It doesn’t mean that they need to be living in something smaller,” she said. “I think having folks of various income levels and of different ages makes for a vibrant neighborhood.” 

She added: “Rehabbing these vacant homes, getting folks into these vacant homes, helps you on the path to that.”

Erin Royals, a Ph. D candidate at Rutgers University and outreach coordinator with the Center for Neighborhoods at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, says curating a vibrant neighborhood is complex.
Erin Royals, a Ph. D candidate at Rutgers University and outreach coordinator with the Center for Neighborhoods at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, says curating a vibrant neighborhood is complex. (Catherine Hoffman | Flatland)

While mixed-income neighborhoods can be a vibrant melting pot, it also comes with concerns from some community members. 

“Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY) attitudes are often associated with suburbanites who protest sharing their neighborhood with low-income residents. Some neighborhood leaders have expressed concern about new neighbors that the Land Bank initiative would bring, but both Holmes and Royals hesitate to label the objections as NIMBY.

“I really do think it’s a valid concern around concentrating poverty,” Royals said. “And a lot of these houses are located in the third district, a district that we know has a concentration of poverty.”

Siloing low-income individuals and families can contribute to inadequate schools, increased crime and a lack of access to necessary services. It can also create a cycle of poverty that is difficult for later generations to escape. 

Supportive services that address those challenges are already stretched thin and can be difficult for the unhoused to secure.

Rent relief during the recent pandemic-worsened housing crisis has been slow and difficult to access. Housing advocates also note that the unhoused need help sooner than the time it would take to renovate a vacant house. 

The most recent point-in-time count of people who are unhoused in the Kansas City metropolitan area is inching close to 1,800, according to the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness. And the federal dollars dedicated to curbing this crisis have been scattered. 

But some money might be available. According to a Grist investigation published on May 10, federal monies via the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had been set aside two months into the pandemic specifically to help unhoused people. 

The most recent data from April 7 show that just 25 local governments applied. Jackson County in Missouri was one. 

It asked for $283,675.73.

Catherine Hoffman covers community affairs and culture for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS. Cody Boston is a video producer for Kansas City PBS.

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