Published August 31st, 2021 at 6:00 AM
Broken windows. Caved-in roofs. Crumbling walls.
These are some of the hazards shared by Kansas City’s 364 dangerous buildings — properties that the city considers unsafe and unhealthy for habitation.
But as these buildings stand dormant, falling into further disrepair, some of their owners are nowhere to be found.
That’s because they don’t live in Kansas City.
An analysis of the dangerous buildings list by The Kansas City Beacon found that 75 dangerous buildings are owned by companies or individuals who live outside the state of Missouri. Of these, 37 owners are based in Kansas. In total, 38 owners are not based in either state.
A majority of these absentee-owned dangerous buildings are concentrated in neighborhoods east of Troost Avenue, a historic economic and racial dividing line in Kansas City. That coincides with the general trend of dangerous buildings being predominantly located east of Troost, regardless of ownership.
As president of the Lykins Neighborhood Association, Gregg Lombardi has seen the impact an absentee property owner can have on the health of a neighborhood. The Lykins neighborhood, which stretches north to south from Independence Avenue to the railroad tracks that run from Truman Road to Ninth Street and is bordered to the west by Benton Boulevard, has three properties currently on the dangerous buildings list.
Lombardi remembers a home on East Ninth Street that was on the dangerous buildings list. Its owner lived in California.
“She’s never seen the property, never done anything to maintain it and never done anything to secure it,” Lombardi said. “In 2008, it actually looked pretty decent. But it became a drug and prostitution house. There were at least a couple of fires in the building.”
The city scheduled the home for demolition. But the neighborhood association stepped in with legal action to take ownership of the building and begin the improvements the previous owner had ignored.
“It’s a beautiful house,” Lombardi said about the rehab.
There are two ways a dangerous building can be removed from Kansas City’s list: Renovation to address code violations against the property or demolition.
John Baccala, spokesperson for the Housing and Community Development Department in Kansas City, Missouri, said sometimes property owners will comply and take the necessary steps to fix up a building.
But more often than not, the dangerous buildings team will either encounter an out-of-state owner who doesn’t provide local contact information or an owner with an “out of sight, out of mind” perspective.
“Those are really the issues that we face, probably primarily more than anything else is that type of mentality: ‘I’m not here, I don’t live here, I’m not going to be bothered with it,’” Baccala said.
Without stronger enforcement in place, the roadblock of an unresponsive out-of-state owner who won’t cooperate with the dangerous buildings team can mean a hazardous property is left standing in neighborhoods.
“That’s what we have in these cases, is just somebody that won’t step up and do the right thing,” Baccala said.
In these situations, the team will continue issuing code violations against the dangerous building. Baccala said the city will decide to take legal action if the health and safety of nearby residents is at risk because of the dangerous property.
If the property is beyond repair, the city will demolish the building. Baccala said demolitions can cost the city around $8,000 to $10,000. If that happens, he said the city will take legal action to recoup the cost of the demolition from the owner.
But even when owners won’t cooperate, a building can sometimes get a new and better life.
Neighborhood associations and nonprofits can obtain ownership of dangerous buildings through legal avenues. The Missouri Abandoned Housing Act, for instance, allows nonprofit neighborhood groups to become the owners of abandoned properties, like dangerous buildings, which can then make it easier to conduct a renovation.
The Lykins Neighborhood Association and some other neighborhood groups have used the act to take possession of dangerous, abandoned buildings from owners who lived out of state and ghosted the property.
The overall goal of the Abandoned Housing Act and a few other legal channels is to ensure the property is fixed up.
If a neighborhood association or the city decides to take legal action against an absentee owner, attorneys will provide notice of the lawsuit to the out-of-state owner. Legal Aid of Western Missouri, a nonprofit that provides assistance with civil cases, helps with these kinds of ownership cases through its economic development unit.
The proceedings can take anywhere from eight months to two years or more, Legal Aid lawyer Abby Judah said. Lawyers who provide notice to out-of-state owners often receive the same nonresponse as the city does when it issues code violations.
But that silence from the property owner can actually make the legal process easier. Attorneys and neighborhood groups can move forward without resistance to obtain ownership of the property and renovate it.
“There probably is a level of desirability that it be the owner that picks it up,” said Brandon Mason, managing attorney of the economic development unit at Legal Aid. “But absent that, if they’re just not going to fight us, that’s pretty easy, too. If they don’t respond, then it makes it pretty easy for us to go in and know that we have carte blanche to fix it up ourselves.”
If an owner does respond to the summons, Judah said lawyers will encourage the owner to fix up the property and will use the court system to hold the owner accountable.
“Sometimes that’s what’s needed to get someone to pay attention to the property and take the whole situation seriously,” Judah said.
Whether an out-of-state owner participates in legal proceedings and chooses to renovate a dangerous property can depend on the health of the current housing market, Judah added.
“I think when property values are higher, then obviously owners … are more inclined to respond to protect their investment,” she said. “But when … their value is less, … then it seems like people don’t see that it’s in their best interest to try to fix up the property.”
Of course, that decision to allow a property to slide into disrepair and stand empty and abandoned isn’t in the best interest of the people who have to live around it.
“I think a lot of people see cheap property values and think this is a solid investment,” Judah said. “And they don’t see the harm that it causes communities, that it is something that is really harming people who have to live next to an abandoned house that’s dangerous and is threatening their safety, their well-being, every single day.”
Celisa Calacal covers economics and civic engagement and Emily Wolf covers local government for The Beacon, an online news outlet based in Kansas City focused on local, in-depth journalism in the public interest.