Dangerous and disinvested: Kansas City’s struggle to fix hundreds of blighted buildings
A Beacon investigation into Kansas City’s 363 listed dangerous buildings reveals a convoluted and confounding system missing one thing: accountability.
The Splash of Life building, located on the corner of 43rd Street and Troost Avenue, is painted a hue of bubblegum pink with purple trimming. The windows on its western side are either covered with tarp or a colorfully painted sign.
One sign reads, “Mayor Quinton Lucas, help is needed now.”
The building is still standing — despite a fire last winter that caused extensive damage. The lot to the west of Splash of Life is empty, though it has frequently been filled with trash bags and debris. Neighbors have complained.
The two-story building has been listed as a dangerous building since 2008.
This building is one of 363 properties on the city’s dangerous buildings list. These buildings are considered “structurally unsound” by the city — unsafe for any person to live or work in. A Beacon analysis of city data found a majority of dangerous buildings — both commercial and residential — are concentrated in ZIP codes east of Troost Avenue, a racial and economic dividing line in Kansas City.
Neighborhoods east of Troost are more likely to be lower income and have more residents of color.
Documents obtained by The Beacon through a public records request reveal the 13-year history of Splash of Life since it was designated a dangerous building. The building’s story shows how the city’s process to take buildings off the list, either through renovation or demolition, can take years, leaving these dilapidated properties at risk of descending further into decay. In the meantime, residents and businesses around dangerous buildings are left to deal with the repercussions.
That these dangerous buildings, often called blight, are concentrated in areas that already see lower property values and more families living under the poverty line is a symptom of a larger issue — a failure to improve the impact of historical disinvestment and discriminatory policies.
“That’s a legacy of systemic discrimination against people of color in the housing market,” said Erik Olsen, professor and chair of the economics department at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “Kansas City has a long-term, historical legacy of racial residential segregation.”
The impacts of policies like redlining are still being felt today and have shaped the city’s development, said Erin Royals, neighborhood outreach and research coordinator at the Center for Neighborhoods at UMKC.
“The fact that there’s so much blight on the east side, the fact that there’s a concentration of these buildings on the east side, it’s just a reflection on how we value these parts of the city,” Royals said.
A case study at A Splash of Life
Since being listed as a dangerous building, Splash of Life has received a demolition order from the city at least seven times, according to inspection documents obtained by The Beacon.
Dozens of inspections conducted over the years revealed a building rife with structural problems and code violations: a missing roof, unstable walls, a floor in disrepair, no windows in parts of the building, trash in the adjacent lot.
Jerry Crowell has owned the building at 4337 Troost since 2013 — and he’s never wanted it torn down. Crowell told The Beacon he wasn’t even aware the property was classified a dangerous building when he bought it. He was only notified of the building’s code violations, Crowell said.
Documents obtained by The Beacon show a courtesy letter sent to Crowell in 2014 notifying him of the dangerous building classification, a year after he bought it.
Crowell had plans to rehab the building — and he still does. But those renovations stalled because he didn’t have the right permits, preventing him from moving forward with renovations for years.
“It prevented me from doing any fixing, putting a new roof on, putting a first floor, second floor, do brick work,” Crowell said. “I couldn’t do any work.”
So Crowell went to court. In May 2018, the Jackson County court approved a temporary restraining order to stop demolition and allow Crowell to proceed with renovations that would abate the dangerous conditions, according to documents obtained by The Beacon. Crowell filed another temporary restraining order in March 2021, though the Jackson County court dismissed the case.
Following the temporary restraining order in 2018, Crowell received a permit to replace the roof, which took about a year to complete. He then moved on to renovating the second floor and putting wooden rafters in the ceiling. He’s paid for these renovations out of his own pocket, he said.
But the latest order to demolish came in February, after a fire damaged part of the structure. It was set to be demolished in March, until the dangerous building team came to inspect the building and saw the improvements Crowell had made.
When a demolition order is issued, the property owner has 30 days to close and secure the building and either demolish or repair the structure.
John Baccala, spokesperson for Kansas City, Missouri’s Neighborhood and Housing Services, which oversees code enforcement and Dangerous Buildings, said Crowell has done enough work on the property throughout the years that the department has allowed him to continue.
During an on-site inspection in March, the owner showed them interior renovations to address the building’s structural issues.
“Now he still has a lot more work to do,” Baccala said. “But he did a lot more work than we can see from the exterior.”
The building is no longer up for demolition. Baccala said next steps will involve bringing in planning and development to work with Dangerous Buildings and Crowell to keep repairing the building.
He said as long as Crowell — or any property owner of a designed dangerous building — keeps doing enough work to make the building structurally sound, the city will allow him to continue.
In the years he’s fought to renovate his building, Crowell has turned the outdoor lot space into an area where people can donate things from clothes to food for unhoused people. His dream for the building: live on the second floor and transform the first floor and outdoor lot into a community space. It would be a place for community members to gather and a space where unhoused people could get resources like food and clothes.
“I’m trying to help the community, and I’ve been doing this for eight years,” Crowell said.
Dangerous buildings impact property values, neighborhood morale
The Splash of Life building on Troost is not the only property with a long shelf life on the city’s dangerous buildings list. According to The Beacon’s analysis, 19 properties have been on the list for at least five years or more. Over 100 cases for dangerous buildings were opened in 2020.
Once a building is classified as dangerous, it can either be renovated by the owner or demolished if all other options have been exhausted. Out of the 363 cases, 126 are classified as an “ongoing case.” There are 104 structures that are in a “pre-bid” process, meaning they are in the beginning stages of demolition.
Baccala said a building that’s classified as dangerous can be renovated so long as the structurally unsound issues are remedied. Baccala said the city will exhaust every option to preserve the structural stability of the building before moving forward with demolition.
Baccala said it’s ultimately the responsibility of the property owner to address the conditions outlined by the city’s dangerous buildings team. But that can be difficult when owners aren’t communicative. Baccala said there are a lot of buildings on the list that have run into the issue of absentee ownership.
“If an owner is willing to cooperate with the city, we will give them every opportunity to address the issues that are making it a dangerous building until we either come to a point where they’re not addressing those issues, or the building is so structurally unsound where demolition becomes the only option,” he said.
Councilmember Melissa Robinson represents Kansas City’s 3rd District, which encompasses neighborhoods east of Troost Avenue and has the highest number of dangerous buildings, according to a Beacon analysis of the data.
Robinson recognizes the negative impact that dangerous buildings and blight can have on neighborhoods, attracting crime and becoming a health hazard.
Robinson said the city does have the authority to tear down a dangerous building, adding that demolitions do not require the approval of City Council. But the primary barrier to taking buildings off the list is a lack of funding.
“We need to be able to thread the needle in a way in which we’re working with developers to address the properties that can be restored and provide a place for individuals to live,” Robinson said. “And at the same time, accelerating those buildings that are not salvageable and demolishing them.”
There can also be legal barriers for the city to take action against property owners, even when their properties are not compliant with city code. Robinson said state statutes are protective of homeowners.
“How do we either build capacity or reassign the priorities of our attorneys to be able to deal with these issues?” she said. “We just don’t have enough legal support to be able to make a significant impact.”
Starting in 2016, the city embarked on a two-year, $10 million project to demolish 800 properties on the city’s dangerous buildings list. By spring 2018, 895 properties were demolished.
Though the project met its goal, Robinson said the city is still paying off that debt years later.
Money for Kansas City’s neighborhoods department, which oversees dangerous buildings, comes from the city’s general fund. But Robinson said there’s not a lot of room in the general fund to allocate more money to the department — most of the general fund is taken up by the Kansas City Police Department budget.
In Kansas City’s adopted 2021-2022 budget, there’s $565.7 million in the city’s general fund. Public safety, which includes the police, fire department, and municipal court, makes up $415.6 million. Neighborhoods and Housing Services, in contrast, received $50.7 million from the city’s general fund.
There’s no room to do anything else, Robinson said, like allocating funding to address the root causes of crime.
“When people talk about reallocating funding for problems, this is what they’re talking about,” Robinson said. “Part of the crime is because you have neighborhoods with all these vacant buildings, high grass, blight. You don’t have a vibrant community. And when you don’t have a vibrant community, it is a cesspool for crime and violence to happen.”
This is what Gregg Lombardi, president of the Lykins Neighborhood Association in Historic Northeast Kansas City, sees.
The Lykins neighborhood, which stretches north to south from Independence Avenue to the railroad tracks that run from Truman Road to 9th Street and is bordered to the west by Benton Boulevard, is home to many families of color, immigrants, and refugees. Census data shows Lykins is 77% non-white, where Hispanic people make up 34% of the neighborhood.
Fifty properties listed on the city’s dangerous buildings list are in Lykins, making it the ZIP code with the third highest number of dangerous buildings in Kansas City.
Lombardi says empty buildings like the two-story home with boarded up windows at 3910 E. Ninth Street are a “cancer” on the community.
“They are a magnet for crime,” he said. “The dangerous buildings in the Lykins neighborhood get broken into a lot.”
It makes residents feel “uncared for,” Lombardi said, and affects everything from morale to property values.
Shalaunda Holmes is the community real estate director at the Urban Neighborhood Initiative, a Kansas City nonprofit dedicated to building healthy neighborhoods. She said blight has long-term impact, too.
“It can actually deter investment because it shows that this city doesn’t really value its neighborhoods,” she said.
Demolishing a dangerous building can come with its own drawbacks
But it’s not just the dangerous buildings themselves that can be a problem — it’s the vacant lots that appear in their place. The empty lots can become dumping sites for trash, creating a public health hazard, Lombardi said.
“They’re just bad things for the neighborhood,” he said. “They’re demoralizing for the people who live in the neighborhood.”
So when does a building become slated for demolition? If the property is beyond repair and poses a danger to surrounding homes, or if the city has exhausted all other options working with the owner to rehab the building.
Baccala said a building can also be demolished if the owner can’t afford renovations. He said a demolition can cost an estimated $8,000 to $10,000. Baccala said the department doesn’t have money in its budget to help with renovations.
Once a building is classified for demolition, it goes through an abatement cleanup to remove environmental hazards like asbestos and a process of shutting off the building’s utilities. Then the city will put out a bid request for a third party contractor to conduct the demolition.
Baccala stressed that the city would rather see dangerous, vacant buildings be renovated than torn down.
“In a perfect world, we would only be tearing down buildings that are so structurally unsound or have been damaged by fire that there’s no other recourse,” he said.
Lombardi said city officials should take better steps to think about what comes after a dangerous building is torn down. He believes there are buildings being demolished that could’ve been rehabbed and used for housing.
“It’s an asset waiting to be used,” Lombardi said. “The city has a severe shortage of affordable housing. And it is very feasible for somebody to make money rehabbing what has been labeled a dangerous building and turning it into good quality housing.”
Back on Troost Avenue, Melissa Ferrer has lived two houses down from Splash of Life for two years. She’s seen how the building can be a positive presence, a place where unhoused individuals can receive clothes and any items they need.
She sees A Splash of Life as a space for the community to come together.
“I think it’s kind of a paragon of hope,” Ferer said. “A possibility of something that you don’t often see a lot of.”