People who live around Troost think about Tom Wright.
Greg Hooper moved to 4232 Troost in May 2002, lured by cheap property and one building's Spanish-style architecture. He planned to refinish the old plumbing-supply house, making it a model he could show to potential clients for his building-renovation business, Brass Ring Restorations. When he arrived, Hooper says, he found a truck with a trailer full of scrapped cars parked at his doorstep. A motorcade of stripped vehicles dotted the curbside to the end of the block.
Hooper walked across the street to a mechanic's yard, where he met the owner of the run-down property, a soft-spoken, gray-bearded man named Tom Wright.
"It's not my business to get in the middle of your business -- you've been here longer," Hooper said. "But could you get your shit out of the front of my building?" Wright moved the clunkers, but, Hooper says, they eventually migrated back.
A few weeks later, a tow truck rolled loose from the lot, barreling backward through four lanes of traffic and smashing into a 4-inch steel post just outside Hooper's building. The impact shook the house, creating cracks that run like stair steps along the north wall.
One Saturday in July 2002, Hooper was sitting in an oversized chair on the second floor of his two-story building, surfing channels on his television, surrounded by white wall-to-wall carpeting. On the first floor, raised two-by-fours outlined places where the walls had been stripped.
From his window, Hooper could look across the street and see a 20-foot tall humpbacked building with a partly sunken roof, bordered by smashed-up cars. Grease-smeared men stepped past scattered engine blocks, ripped couches and junked appliances baking in the heat.
Watching the screen in front of him that Saturday two years ago, Hooper was flipping between World's Greatest Police Chases on one channel and World's Greatest Natural Disasters on another. He didn't see a man stride out of Wright's mechanic's yard and pour gasoline across the interior of the man's own late-model Chevy, parked outside Hooper's office. But he says he saw Wright and heard yelling. Then the man stepped back, struck a match and set the car on fire.
Since then, Hooper's annoyances with Wright's businesses have been less dramatic -- like the time one of Wright's mechanics knocked on his door with a 5-gallon jug, asking if he could collect water to flush their shop toilet.
Hooper eventually contacted City Hall to complain about Wright. City officials organized a meeting with neighborhood activists. They learned how much property Wright owned along the infamous avenue -- and how Wright had been dodging property codes and zoning violations. They also discovered that he had unpaid real estate taxes dating back almost fifteen years.
"He played the system inside and out, to the point where he could get away with anything," Hooper says.
Pockets of revitalization along Troost -- especially in the few blocks directly north of Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard -- show that people are investing in the area again ("Troost Colors," April 17). Meanwhile, Wright has spent years stalling on cleanup orders and avoiding paying property taxes.
Jim Jackson, who has lived near 44th and Troost since 1977, says he's seen broken cars sit on Wright's lots for six months at a time. Ron McCabe, who moved in near 45th Street in 1979, says the properties look like dumps and operate as salvage yards.
The same year McCabe moved in, Dona Boley, who worked as a chemist collecting samples of gas and fuel for Williams Pipeline Company in the Fairfax District, and her husband, a high school English teacher and track coach at Shawnee Mission East, bought a two-story Arts and Crafts-style home at 3521 Harrison Street, a block of 1900-era homes just west of Troost. The Boleys' home had been split into rental space for thirteen tenants. They gutted the kitchen, put in a shower and built a two-car garage. Over the years, they'd make many more repairs.
Today, Boley says, her neighborhood has "come the furthest of any historic neighborhood north of the Plaza." Wright, though, has "stymied improvement and development along Troost," she says. New stores, like Walgreens and Osco, would stretch much farther north if it weren't for Wright, Boley says.
Like Boley, Wright invested in the area more than twenty years ago. One of Wright's former partners says Wright, too, saw enormous potential for the land.
Terry Young says he met Wright in the early '80s. Young was working at a manufacturing plant where Wright would come in to buy auto parts. Young remembers that Wright was full of energy and ideas about starting a business. Together the duo quit their jobs and joined other speculators who were grabbing land along Troost.
They targeted the 4000 blocks, a retail district commercially zoned to allow everything from bars and cocktail lounges to small auto dealerships, car washes and drive-through restaurants.
"The value per square foot was really down because of drugs," Young says. "We thought it would be really valuable property someday."
In 1983, Young says he and Wright bought three buildings on the 4200 block of Troost for $75,000 and spent more than $10,000 reroofing and remodeling them. They bought a bar on the 4400 block and kicked out the renters, installed central air and new carpet, and leased it to a Baptist church. They snatched up office space at 4536 and rehabbed it with walnut paneling.
Young says their biggest plan was to renovate a row of dilapidated houses along the 4400 block and install a strip mall called Wright Center Square. Initially, he says, they wanted to put in a laundromat and small rental spaces for insurance companies and a photo studio.
They tried to buy a busy, five-stall car wash at 4500 Troost. Unable to purchase it, they instead acquired small, grassy lots on either side of an abandoned fire station on the 4500 block. They hoped to purchase the concrete building and eventually build a gigantic, conveyor-belt car wash to compete.
By the mid-'80s, Wright and Young owned at least a half-dozen properties along the corridor, and all but two were rented out. The landlord business was fine, Young says, but it would take a long time to realize a profit.
Young says Wright wanted to keep acquiring land. But Young wanted to get out of the business and leave Kansas City. "We had good plans, and he had long-term plans, and I wanted to scale my life back," Young says. So Young signed a handful of quit-claim deeds -- informal, generic contracts giving his partner immediate land ownership -- handing over his interest in Troost. Then he left with his wife for Pleasant Hill. Young would go to work traveling across the state selling soap.
"It was really becoming valuable when I walked away from it," Young says of the property he signed over to Wright. "I didn't dream it would come back to haunt me fifteen, seventeen, eighteen years later."
One of the surprises awaiting him: A number of quit-claim deeds would never be filed at the Jackson County Courthouse, transferring the property ownership out of Young's hands. He would later discover that he was responsible for another person's mess.
Young is under the impression that Wright bought the car wash; city documents show the property actually belongs to Wright's brother in-law, who lives in Colorado. Recent inspection reports show that Wright may have instead simply been managing the property. Neighbors say he was watching it fall apart.
"The whole neighborhood is picking up so much that it's making the blight more evident," says Arlene Willett-Fisher, a retired teacher who lives at the corner of Brush Creek and Troost. "When you go from Kauffman Gardens to Troost and Tom Wright's properties, it's such a comedown."
Willett-Fisher remembers seeing Wright when she and her husband moved in to remodel a duplex there in 1988. He was a short man with brown hair then, driving a Bobcat tractor loaded with machine parts in and out of the bottom level of a parking garage next to a closed-down supermarket.
Back then, Willett-Fisher and her husband were new to the area and didn't realize Wright's role in the junkyard appearance of their neighborhood. They just thought he was a neighborhood oddity.
By the late '80s, the used-car lot Wright owned on the 4200 block of Troost was holding more broken cars than vehicles for sale. At the now-dry car wash, all five stalls were tagged with spray paint or crammed with dead auto bodies.
In general, though, Troost was improving, Boley says. She was elected president of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association in 1986. The group hosted an annual historic homes tour. It created a video and a brochure to market the neighborhood. Volunteers patrolled the streets at night, watching out for crimes. The governor gave the group an award for planting 365 trees.
In 1990, Boley and her husband paid $1.10 a square foot for three empty lots on Troost. They installed a chain-link fence, sowed grass and planted bur oaks, spruces and pines around a towering 100-year-old elm. The Boleys' fence line stopped at the sidewalk, allowing pedestrians to glimpse a groomed infield with patio furniture, a birdbath and a sundial arranged near the northern corner of the house.
In 1993, one of Wright's properties, a residence at 4112 Tracy, was condemned by the city and torn down. That year, the city labeled 4500 Troost a dangerous building, but Wright repaired it enough to avoid demolition. Neighbors say the loose auto parts brought late-night scavengers and that prostitutes sometimes turned tricks in the back seats of crumpled heaps.
Richard Tolbert, a former city councilman who moved to Troost in the early '90s, says Wright is just a mechanic serving blue-collar customers from east of Troost.
Tolbert served Kansas City's 3rd District as the youngest councilman ever in the early '70s. Once touted as a prospect to be the city's first black mayor, the 23-year-old instead became known for truancies from City Council meetings and for allegedly appropriating a city car for his personal use. He was also dogged by questions about his personal finances, including misfiled travel expenses, and about his rent-free use of the Economic Development Corporation building at 18th and Agnes for a boutique. He had also been accused of dodging taxes by juggling properties between himself and the All Denominational New Church, an organization he founded that had no formal meeting place or congregation.
"I'm always in trouble and don't have any money -- passing bad checks," Tolbert tells the Pitch. He is, he says, "a lawyer's dream or a lawyer's nightmare."
Tolbert rented retail space from Wright in 1990. He says a friend in the neighborhood called Wright "a white guy but a good guy anyway." They brokered a deal for a 50-foot-by-30-foot space for $100 a month, Tolbert says.
By the spring of 1997, then-mayor Emanuel Cleaver likened portions of Troost to a "bombed-out Beirut." The street was full of boarded-up buildings, and the stretch between 4200 and 4500 was an auto graveyard. The wrecked, disabled and demolished vehicles in plain view violated zoning ordinances for the retail area.
Cleaver proposed turning Troost into a "Forest of Fountains," flattening blighted houses and empty storefronts along Troost between 31st Street and Armour Road and replacing them with parks and fountains. Boley thinks her manicured field may have been what inspired the mayor's idyllic outburst. (The City Council never took the proposal seriously; The Kansas City Star later criticized it as one of "too many questionable projects" that hurt Cleaver's ability to "promote smaller, neighborhood-level improvements.")
Boley served on the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners from 1993 through 1997. In the late '90s she chaired the City Services Committee, which looked at infrastructure, codes and zoning along Troost. "There were a couple of surveys done on the physical condition of Troost," Boley says. "Tom's properties jumped to the top of the list because of their condition."
The ex-police commissioner began to investigate her mystery neighbor. She learned about his codes and zoning problems. She accessed city databases to check the status of complaints against him. Then she watched the courthouse docket, waiting for his name to appear.
Five times in 1998, Boley went downtown to sit among neighborhood housing offenders for hearings at the municipal courthouse. She ways Wright would arrive in grubby clothes and feign ignorance of codes and zoning issues surrounding his property.
A short, articulate woman, Boley stood beneath the fluorescent bulbs to testify against him.
Wright's codes violations dated back to before 1995. "The zoning department knew him very well," she says. "Tom, of course, became aware of me when I got next to the prosecutor to testify against the conditions of his property.
"In the beginning he tries to schmooze you," she adds. "'Oh, Dona, tell me what has to be done. Tell me if you have any complaints, and I'll take care of it.' He'd say, 'Oh, Dona, just tell me what's wrong,' and I said, 'Tom, it's your responsibility to know what's wrong and to follow the rules. I'm not your keeper, the property owner is responsible.' It's his property."
Inspection files at the city's Neighborhood Preservation Division show that officials were confused over which properties Wright managed and which ones he owned. Carefully scrolling through Jackson County land tax records, Boley concluded that Wright owed thousands of dollars in back taxes on all of his properties. Today, that amount is around $100,000, not counting penalties and interest.
At the end of every summer, the county auctions off tax-delinquent properties. It's not hard to imagine that Troost might look a little better today if someone with an interest in revitalization had been able to buy Wright's lots.
But on August 24, 1999, six days before that year's auction, Wright filed paperwork to declare Chapter 13 bankruptcy. A Chapter 13 filing protects a debtor's assets, allowing him to organize a plan to pay creditors. Wright was able to keep his property though the tax-sale period. Because he never filed a plan detailing his finances, the court had no choice but to dismiss Wright's claim because it was incomplete. He resumed complete ownership of all of his property, without penalty, in March 2000.
Boley turned to Legal Aid of Western Missouri, a nonprofit organization representing people who can't afford lawyers in civil matters, to investigate Wright on behalf of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association. Boley and Legal Aid attorney Larry Hamel learned that Wright had also filed bankruptcy in Missouri in 1994 and 1995 -- both years in which the county could have sold his property for back taxes. He had avoided another tax sale in August 1996 by filing for protection in Kansas just two days prior to the sale date, though he had neither the required property nor employment within the state.
"People play games," he says. Wright didn't have to pull off the bogus bankruptcy filing very long, Hamel says -- "just long enough to get past the sales dates."
Jackson County records show that Wright paid some property taxes in 1998 and 1999. But he filed an initial request for bankruptcy again on September 18, 2000.
This time, Wright filed a list of possessions and creditors as well as a payment plan.
When Wright followed his initial request for bankruptcy with a complete filing on September 28, 2000, he had $200 in his pocket. He claimed to be self-employed, with no health insurance. According to court documents, he estimated spending roughly $25 a month for food. The value of his personal property (which included $1,200 worth of hammers, screwdrivers and various power tools -- implements that were worth more than the value of his 1982 Chevy S-10 pick-up, motorboat and trailer) totaled a little more than $3,300. Most of his money was tied up in land.
According to the bankruptcy filing, Wright owned more than seven lots along Troost -- filled with various auto-repair and detailing shops, dealerships, boarded-up buildings, warehouselike structures and steep-roofed houses -- as well as a house at 5305 Lydia and the house in Independence where he still lives.
Wright agreed to pay a bankruptcy trustee $200 a month for the next three years -- the eventual $7,200 was a pittance compared with what he'd wind up owing government bodies -- and to try to sell enough property to settle his debts.
In documents signed by federal Judge Arthur B. Federman on November 20, 2001, creditors claimed that Wright owed Jackson County at least $184,000 in taxes; he also owed the Missouri Department of Revenue $17,890 and the Internal Revenue Service $144,138. Court files indicate that Wright hadn't filed a federal or state tax return between 1988 and 1995, or in 1999.
Wright immediately sold the Lydia property to Rockhurst College, for about $90,000. The money, minus more than $4,000 in back taxes from 1994 through 1998, went to the trustee and was divided evenly among outstanding claims.
But Wright was also acquiring property. Wright and his old tenant, former Councilman Tolbert, did business again the next month, in December 2001, when Wright settled back taxes on a lot that belonged to the All Denominational New Church. In exchange for the settlement, Tolbert transferred the property to Wright by quit-claim deed.
The court was forcing Wright to settle his debts, but what really bothered his neighbors was that no one was forcing him to clean up his act.
In August 2002, Hooper and neighborhood activists met with more than twenty officials from the city's Department of Neighborhood Preservation and the Dangerous Buildings Division, along with City Councilman Troy Nash, Hamel and members of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, including Boley.
Since 1999, codes inspectors had documented vehicles with smashed windows and missing tires scattered throughout the property between 4229 and 4239 Troost. A May 2000 report noted "engine blocks laying beside an outside garage door, a black Chevy with flat tires, a red Olds with no tires and a broken steering column, a red Pontiac with a smashed windshield and no back seat, a black GMC truck with no hood and missing engine parts, a blue Jeep on jack stands, a blue Chevy blazer with smashed rear window, several vehicles with parts inside cab, 3 pick-up boxes filled with parts, a blue Olds with no tires, a burned black Dodge, ... and tires stacked beside a garage door."
The lot at 4446 Troost had been used as an open storage space for a stove, a refrigerator, a sink and a water heater. The crumbling top edge of the building hung precariously over a bus-stop bench, which had at one point been covered by part of the toppled parapet.
Vehicles parked inside stalls at the old car-wash site at 45th and Troost were missing engines, tires and doors. A van next to the garage had no rear tires; a taxi sat with a smashed rear window. Other properties drew violations for weeds, trash, brush, disconnected downspouts and peeling paint.
In September 2002, city officials tagged the garage behind 4446 Troost as a dangerous building because of fire hazards, structural warping, and unsanitary conditions. They slated it for demolition.
"Everyone had the feeling the city was doing what it could with the tools that it had," Boley recalls.
Things got tough for Wright in the months that followed.
Wright missed three court hearings as zoning and codes violations continued to build up. A municipal court judge fined him $1,000 and sent him to jail a few days before Christmas.
Wright was ordered to spend twenty days at the Missouri Correctional Institute, a minimum-security campus with group barracks and razor-wire fencing south of the Truman Sports Complex. (With credit for good behavior, he was released on January 2 of this year.) It was an unlikely place for a reunion, but there Wright ran into his old friend and tenant Richard Tolbert. Tolbert had earned a half-day in jail after angering a judge over a $28 parking ticket.
They were confined in a one-story dormitory that housed about 48 men, Tolbert says. Paint had peeled off the concrete walls, windows lacked screens and the ceiling leaked. Bunk beds were arranged in three rows running the length of the hall and separated by thin partitions. A TV blinked in one corner of the room. The jailhouse was loud and barren.
"It was helpful for me to walk in and see a friendly face," Tolbert says. "I'd never been there before."
Like Wright, Tolbert had also used bankruptcy court to protect his assets. After filing more than six times over three years in the late '90s, he was finally barred from bankruptcy court for 180 days when a judge found him guilty of filing in bad faith.
Though the Pitch had several brief conversations with Wright, he refused to talk to the paper on the record for this story. Tolbert, however, didn't mind speaking on his behalf.
Tolbert tells the Pitch that Wright's incarceration is an example of city officials crossing the line between codes enforcement and codes harassment. As an example, Tolbert claims that he himself has received as many as fifteen tickets in one day on various properties he owns. Tolbert estimates that in ten years, more than twenty buildings have been demolished or sold out from under him on the courthouse steps.
"The city targets certain people they call slumlords," Tolbert says. "I've been going to housing court for years, and only recently they've started putting housing violators in jail. I don't think it's right that city bureaucrats are trying to destroy honest citizens. They're misusing the law to get the good guys, property owners."
The city has found a new weapon in its arsenal against Wright: his old partner, Terry Young. In a hearing this spring, Young made an appearance to help the city make its case against Wright.
This past January, Young received a citation for broken windows and a damaged brick exterior wall at 4446 Troost. But until a few months ago, Young tells the Pitch, he wasn't aware that he technically still owned this property.
"Truthfully, I go to Kansas City, but I avoid Troost," Young says. "I've only seen that property four or five times since I left it. All I've seen is that it just gets worse and worse and worse." He re-signed quit-claim deeds for all of his Troost properties in 1987 and 1989, he says, after Wright claimed to have lost the paperwork. Young told inspectors he had a 1987 deed showing that Wright owned the property. But apparently, Wright had never filed the deed at the courthouse. County documents still show that Wright and Young are joint owners of the property, dating back to a deed filed in 1979.
At an initial hearing, Young signed another quit-claim deed, making Wright liable for the property. Facing a $500 fine and a 180-day jail sentence for each violation, Wright appealed.
On June 13, Wright showed up fifteen minutes early for the appeals hearing on the seventh floor of the downtown courthouse. He passed a group of uniformed police and a few well-dressed twentysomethings sitting ramrod straight and took a seat on a bench up front. Wright folded his hands in his lap. He was wearing blue jeans, a short-sleeved shirt and scuffed, white tennis shoes. Beside him on the bench was a Bible-thick manila folder stuffed with documents.
Wright stood at the bench, arms loosely folded behind his back, and told the appeals judge that his lawyer was sick and that he hadn't been able to retain other legal counsel on short notice. Young was absent, too, so the judge continued the case until July 17.
A few days after the June 13 hearing, Tolbert is at Wright's 42nd Street shop buying tires. A pickup truck is parked in the center of the lot where the humpbacked building once stood, and a worker tosses handfuls of hay on the fresh dirt to keep down the dust.
In January, the city began to tear down the building after a neighbor complained that a roof rafter had broken loose, smashing the building's garage door. The demolition took more than two months because Wright had to move his stored cars and parts from inside. So far, the city has spent $13,300 tearing down Wright's dangerous building. If Wright sells the property, the city could get the money back.
City inspectors have tagged the building behind the auto dealership at 4528 Troost dangerous because of its unstable roof. Wright and the city are discussing solutions that would dismantle it without running bulldozers through the front shop.
Wright's bankruptcy filing will expire in November, a few months after the next delinquent-tax auction. To date, the bankruptcy trustee has filed eight petitions to dismiss Wright's case because of late payments and improper filings. Wright may choose to file for an additional two years of protection if the court finds that he has executed his filing in good faith by making monthly payments and attempting to sell property to settle his debts.
A white "For Sale" sign sits on a steel post at the curb, near a golf cart, a sofa and engine parts littering the ground. A yellow sign is posted on the building behind it, across from the dirt-and-straw field and another lot, where a box spring leans against a wall by a refrigerator and a red-handled shopping cart.
According to his real estate agent, Wright's properties are for sale in multiple listings for about $15 a square foot -- a massive increase over the $1.10 a square foot Boley paid for her properties down the street just over ten years ago.
One by one, Tolbert rolls tires across the dirt and straw, loading them into a worn-out American car with green and yellow stripes and a faded logo on the side.
Wearing blue jeans, scuffed tennis shoes and an O'Reilly Auto Parts ball cap, his friend Wright stands on the northern lot. His head under the raised hood of a pick-up truck, he's examining a broken engine.