The strategy works. In the '80s, such actions helped create Jackson County's quarter-cent sales tax for drug-prevention programs. In the mid-'90s, another action spurred the city to channel almost $10 million to neighborhood improvement programs. When Young or Church Community Organization leader Phyllis Bahner invites you to an action, you better believe they've done their homework.
Which brings us to October 28, when Young and Bahner, along with 100 residents of Ruskin Heights, held an action inside the wood-paneled basement at St. Matthew's, off Longview Road.
They knew that federal money had been sitting around at City Hall for three years, set aside for rehabbing rundown houses in Ruskin Heights. City staffers had promised that every year, they would use the money to fix up at least three houses, then sell the properties to responsible homeowners. The program might have begun lifting up the entire neighborhood -- had it been working. So far, though, the city had refurbished and resold only one house.
In recent months, the city's Department of Housing and Community Development -- the office in charge of the rehab program -- had been showing signs of life. Contractors were finally getting busy on houses the city had bought more than a year earlier. Young and Bahner planned to acknowledge that officials had picked up the pace -- but they also wanted to urge them to keep going.
They'd invited Mayor Kay Barnes, along with their two city councilmen, Chuck Eddy and Alvin Brooks. But the most important person they expected to show up was Stan Barrett, the head of Housing and Community Development. Barrett's department was the one in charge of the program. The bucks stopped with him.
Young and Bahner set out a chair for him.
Five minutes before the meeting, though, one of Barrett's aides informed the crowd that Barrett wouldn't be attending. Young and Bahner say Barrett's rep offered no explanation. Eddy and Brooks arrived soon after the announcement. Young remembers both councilmen heading upstairs, and he could hear them on their cell phones, insistently trying to find out where Barrett was. "Get him down here," Young heard one of them say. "Find him."
Brooks tells the Pitch that he did call Barrett, who explained that he was home baby-sitting his daughter and would be coming as soon as his wife returned from an evening class. Brooks says he wasn't angry with Barrett.
But those who attended were.
As the meeting began, one of the speakers, Joe Dekat, pointed to Barrett's empty chair and said sarcastically, "If Mr. Barrett was here we would thank him."
Halfway through the meeting, Barrett arrived. He offered an apology about having had to care for his daughter. He promised that the city would hustle to finish rehabbing the homes. That night, the residents wanted promises, which Barrett gave them.
So they gave him a round of applause.
That was in October. By November, their enthusiasm had vanished.
"We get that this is what they promise, and they assure us it has been done. And we are trusting individuals," says St. Matthew's Church Community Organization member Lillie Walker. "Then when you go and find that hasn't been done, I question everything."
Kansas City is pockmarked with depressed neighborhoods. Hardworking people depend on Barrett's department to help them improve the quality of life in parts of town where every little bit makes a big difference.
About $20 million is poured into Barrett's department each year from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The money is supposed to be used for economic development and affordable housing. Much of the money goes directly to the city's dozen or so community-development corporations, or CDCs. These organizations provide social services or build low-cost houses in the city's poorer and working-class neighborhoods; the HUD money pays the salaries of the CDCs' small staffs, who work out of storefronts, houses, modest office buildings -- and even one fire station -- in the northeast, on the West Side and in the east part of town.
The rest of the money that comes through Barrett's department is funneled to a nonprofit agency called the Housing and Economic Development Finance Corporation. Because state law forbids the city from making economic-development loans directly, the HEDFC serves as its lending arm. In turn, the HEDFC also passes on money to CDCs. This money doesn't pay salaries. Instead, the CDCs use it to leverage private dollars to build affordable housing. Technically, the HEDFC isn't a city agency, but Barrett's Department of Housing and Community Development is responsible for monitoring the nonprofit's funding decisions.
It's a complicated bureaucratic maze that relatively few Kansas Citians ever have to think about, unless they're waiting for the city to help.
Yet Barrett has been under siege from The Kansas City Star. In August, he was singled out in a Star article as one of City Hall's worst cell-phone abusers. In response to the paper's criticism that he'd contributed to a ridiculously expensive "gabfest" at 12th and Oak, Barrett simply said, "I need to be on a better rate plan. I get a lot of calls." In late October, the paper broke the news that Barrett had spent $20,771 on new office furniture -- a desk, a chair, a computer table, a conference table with four chairs, a credenza and a bookcase. Though a staffer in Barrett's department says that HUD had budgeted money for the furniture as early as 1997, the timing of Barrett's actual purchase -- in the middle of a major budget crisis -- could not have been worse.
But complaints about the Department of Housing and Community Development go far deeper than wireless minutes and a new desk. Barrett has angered city officials and community activists because in key areas, his department has failed to do its job. Despite all of that time spent on his cell phone, Barrett is a terrible communicator, failing to return calls or e-mails from City Council members as well as neighborhood leaders. His unwillingness to engage the citizens of Kansas City -- whom he is hired to serve and who pay his $106,000 salary -- has angered many people.
Barrett's department of about forty employees operates out of a warren of cubes and offices on City Hall's eleventh floor. The department's 2001-2002 city budget is $18.7 million, and Barrett reports to City Manager Bob Collins. In addition to overseeing the dispersal of federal funds, the department also runs its own home-rehab and weatherization programs and provides assistance to entrepreneurs who want to start small businesses.
Barrett is proud of what he says is his department's hard work: The DHCD has pumped $1.5 million into downtown's Library Lofts project and another million into 100 more units of downtown housing at the Hanover building at 10th and Main, and the Chambers building at 12th and Walnut. Within 45 days, workers will break ground for eighteen single-family homes at Beacon Hill, near 25th and Troost. In addition, Barrett's department is helping to fund projects as wide-ranging as new homes in Troostwood, across from the Stowers Institute, and a new Osco Drug at the corner of 63rd and Prospect.
But if Barrett's department has such a great record, why are so many people in the neighborhoods angry with him?
Ruskin Heights and Ruskin Hills feel like a world cut off by Interstate 470 and 71 Highway. No sidewalks line the streets. Front yards tell stories -- battered cars and old campers rest on cinder blocks, as do speedboats and fishing boats. Some houses have beautiful patios, fountains and tree swings. Others look as if no one has cared for them in years. In neighborhoods like these, residents listen to city promises. They hope. And then they wait.
The seeds of their frustration go back long before Barrett took over as director of the housing department.
Lillie Walker bought her home in Ruskin Hills, just east of Ruskin Heights, in 1976, with her husband Robert. He had spent a long career in the Air Force. In England, they'd lived at the base from which pilot Francis Gary Powers launched his ill-fated U2 spy plane mission in 1960. Russian Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev threatened to bomb the base in retaliation. The Walkers had lived in Germany when terrorists bombed an American embassy there.
When the Walkers were transferred to Kansas City, Lillie decided she'd had enough adventure and was ready to settle down. The Ruskin neighborhoods, she remembers, were a desirable location with good schools. Her own home stands guard over a spacious corner lot filled with leaves, and she can hear kids squealing on the playground at an elementary school nearby.
In the early '90s, many of the modest ranch houses around her home started looking run-down. Built in the 1950s, the houses were affordable for low-income families. They were also attractive to small investors, who often rented the places out but let them decline.
Walker's neighbor Phyllis Bahner moved with her family to Ruskin Heights 27 years ago. Bahner liked the access to the freeways, the big yards, the fact that Longview Lake was nearby. All of that has remained, but the hardware store and the jeweler have closed, giving way to pawnshops.
Bahner, Walker and their neighbors were optimistic back in 1999, when they learned about the federal money for rehabbing decrepit houses. They thought that, under the federal Hope III program, the city would fix up a handful of the neighborhood's worst houses every year. The St. Matthew Church Community Organization staged an action to celebrate the new program.
In 1992, HUD had awarded Kansas City a $1 million grant, and the city's housing department had proceeded to fix up 32 homes across the city. By 1999, Councilmen Eddy and Brooks were looking to expand the program into Ruskin Heights. They asked that the remaining $250,000 be tagged for the neighborhood.
That year, the housing department and the HEDFC signed off on the plan to resuscitate Ruskin. Joe Egan, who was vice president of the HEDFC at the time, told residents about the Hope III program at a meeting of the St. Matthew Church Community Organization. He invited them to submit a list of vacant houses for rehab. Bahner and a few other leaders spent a month compiling more than fifty addresses.
That was three years ago.
At the time, the city's housing department was headed by Jim Vaughn -- and he also had come under heavy criticism. As early as 1993, federal officials had told Vaughn to pay more attention to how outside agencies such as CDCs were spending the government's money. And in 1999, HUD came down on the housing department for failing to monitor the Kansas City Downtown Minority Development Corporation, a CDC that had used HUD money to make $13 million in loans since 1993 but had been repaid only $150,000. Vaughn ended his tenure in the wake of an audit criticizing his department for failing to create a strong housing policy.
Barrett didn't become director of the department until May 2001, but he had been an assistant director in charge of finance under Vaughn.
Regardless of who was in charge of the housing department, Ruskin neighbors were growing impatient waiting for the Hope III program to kick in. The city still hasn't bought any of the homes the neighbors identified three years ago as candidates for renovation.
"None of them remotely come close to meeting federal guidelines," explains Ken Bacchus, a former City Council member and the new president of the HEDFC. No one had told the neighbors about the complicated financing. To qualify for that money, a property had to be dilapidated enough to be declared blighted. But it couldn't be too blighted -- otherwise rehab wouldn't be cost-effective. The neighbors, unaware of these financial wrinkles, simply picked the homes they most wanted to see fixed up.
Bacchus says the city's housing department "made some promises. They should have been honest with [residents]."
In the spring of 2000, the city began working on the only house it would complete (a house Ruskin neighbors hadn't included on their rehab list). Neighborhood volunteers spent hours tearing down the gutters and pulling up the floors before the contractor arrived. Residents felt proud of what, in the fall of that year, seemed to belong to the whole neighborhood.
But since then, it's been awfully quiet in Ruskin Heights. A few months after Barrett took over the housing department in the fall of 2001, the city bought three additional properties in the neighborhood but failed to do any work on them.
For almost a year, residents sent e-mails and made phone calls to Barrett's department, but that failed to spark any action. This past August, Councilman Eddy set up a meeting with the St. Matthew Church Community Organization, Barrett and HEDFC Vice President Everett Tomlin. Barrett and Tomlin admitted that Hope III wasn't the best program for the neighborhood and vowed to tailor a program for the area.
But who knew what to believe? The neighbors had already heard conflicting messages about how the government programs were supposed to work.
For example, the neighbors had volunteered to gut homes before construction workers arrived. Bahner and others hoped this would drive down project costs and increase the odds of finding a buyer -- a strategy that had worked well with the sole house rehabbed in 2000. But now Barrett and Tomlin told Bahner that neighbors couldn't contribute their own sweat equity because of liability concerns. So the Church Community Organization took out insurance to cover any accidents. But it didn't matter -- no contractors were working on any of the other houses. Then Tomlin and Barrett changed their minds, saying that in the next round of rehabs, residents would be able to landscape the homes and help market them.
Growing exasperated, Bahner and her friends met with City Councilwoman Becky Nace, who serves on the council's Housing and Community Development Committee. "That's when things got busy," recalls Church Community Organization member Marianne Melena.
Now Barrett's department is hustling. A white house with green trim on Sycamore looks brand-new and is finished except for landscaping. A few blocks away, workers are about half-done with a home on 112th Terrace. When work at that site fell behind, the city fired the contractor. (No replacement has been hired.) The third house, which the city bought last fall, is a brown duplex with a partially ripped-up kitchen floor. But it's in the wrong neighborhood. It's just south of Ruskin Heights.
Barrett is now trumpeting a new program in the neighborhood, one that invites private developers to rehab qualified homes for resale. Launched last spring, this private program seems to be more successful -- Barrett declared in September that one house was already finished and ready to be sold, and two more would be complete in October. Irving Blue, a development specialist with Barrett's department, says all three have been completed and inspected.
The finished house, on Bristol Terrace, looks handsome with its flagstone façade and neat lawn. Of the other two that were supposed to have been completed last month -- another on Bristol Terrace and one on 111th Street -- the Bristol house was still unlivable at the end of November.
Blue says renovating existing properties takes longer than developing new ones. "I believe our department went beyond the call of duty to emphasize housing initiatives," he says.
Bahner has been trying to stay optimistic. But the "frustration level is pretty high," she says. "We're losing whatever enthusiasm we had."
As in Ruskin, residents in Blue Hills were ready when they heard the city was going to pump money into their neighborhood.
Unlike in Ruskin, there never was any money.
Blue Hills residents had also witnessed a long decline in their corner of the city. When B.J. Atkinson's family moved to Blue Hills in the late 1960s, the neighborhood was in the full throes of integration. For black families, Blue Hills meant a step up. They could afford handsome, well-built homes in a stable neighborhood anchored by shopping centers on 63rd Street as well as smaller stores tucked away around 55th and Euclid. There were plenty of churches and schools.
But as Atkinson grew up, Blue Hills changed. The children of those pioneering black parents left the neighborhood, seeking greener pastures. Their parents stayed, grew old, died. More than 50 percent of the homes became rental properties. Drugs swept through the community. The population dwindled. Atkinson stayed because she liked urban living and because she felt that the neighborhood had potential for revival. But those were years of fear. Older homeowners, she recalls, would sleep on their floors or in their bathtubs to avoid stray bullets.
Pat Keeling moved to the neighborhood in 1970. She was a single mother just out of nursing school. White families were fleeing, and on Euclid Keeling found a charming home with lots of woodwork. Keeling was scared to death of the mortgage, but she plunged in and has never left. Back in the '70s and '80s, Blue Hills neighbors would throw giant block parties once a year, with DJs, food, dancing and, one year, the Marching Cobras.
But after a while there were no more block parties. Keeling saw the rise of drug houses and crime and put her house up for sale in the '80s. She says the prospective buyers were the same absentee landlords who were sending the neighborhood into despair. "I couldn't do my neighbors that way. I didn't want to leave my neighborhood like that."
The St. Therese Little Flower Church formed its Church Community Organization in the late '80s to gather residents who wanted to turn the neighborhood around (see Joe Miller's "Movin' on Up," January 17). At first they concentrated on shutting down drug houses. Then the Church Community Organization members began to consider larger questions, such as how a drug house becomes a drug house. Keeling, who eventually became president of the Blue Hills Neighborhood Association, started keeping a list of people who had maintenance problems with their homes.
More than a year ago, Keeling received an e-mail from a community-development corporation called the Community Builders of Kansas City. The note contained good news. The HEDFC, the lending agency for Barrett's department, had federal grant money available for people who needed minor home repair.
She contacted Gloria Abercrombie at the HEDFC, who told her that City Hall's lending arm had received a federal grant worth $500,000. She also told Keeling she could submit up to 35 applicants who met certain guidelines. Each qualified homeowner could get up to $5,000. Keeling didn't have to find people who needed work done on their homes. She already knew them.
At the end of summer 2001, Abercrombie called a meeting to explain the program. She gave residents a "need survey" to complete; Church Community Organization leaders say HEDFC reps made it clear that this was part of the application.
"They were under the impression it was the real deal," Atkinson says. "The people in this meeting thought they were applying for a grant."
One of those needing a hand was Lydia Barton, who owns a sky-blue bungalow on Wabash just a few blocks from Bruce Watkins Drive. Eighteen years ago, surgeons removed a disc from Barton's back, and she hasn't worked for years. The wall of her living room is lined with pictures of kids and grandkids.
The problem is Barton's attic. Four buckets on the attic floor catch rain from her leaky roof, but water still seeps through to the ceiling of Barton's bedroom just below. Parts of the ceiling are stained orange, the plaster is cracking near the overhead fan and some of it has turned pasty.
"Sooner or later, it's all going to fall off," she says of her ceiling. Barton was counting on a grant from the HEDFC to help her fix it.
She wasn't the only homeowner waiting for help. Half a year went by. Keeling asked the HEDFC for an update but received none. After another six months, in January of this year, Abercrombie and her HEDFC coworker Brian Standish told St. Therese Church Community Organization leaders that the HEDFC hadn't received the grant after all, but would resubmit an application for a smaller grant. In May, Keeling learned that this second grant had also been denied. Eventually, Standish explained that residents had not completed an application. Rather, like the form said, they had filled out a survey.
Bacchus, the new head of the HEDFC, tells the Pitch that, before it could get a new loan to give out grants for home repairs, the HEDFC was required to "test" interest in the neighborhood.
"Apparently there was some disconnect in terms of a full understanding of what was going on there," Bacchus says. "We never really received any money, so therefore, there was never any money for the program in the beginning."
Marva Wotorson, a community relations specialist with Community Builders of Kansas City, says the HEDFC had never made any promises. "Abercrombie said, 'I'm not guaranteeing we'll get this,'" she says. "Everybody just assumed, 'We'll get the grant.'"
But Church Community Organization leaders say they know what they heard.
"An organization in their position shouldn't be 'misunderstanding' when they go before the community," Keeling says of the HEDFC. She insists that the HEDFC told residents that the organization had the money.
Atkinson backs her up. "They promised us money, and all of a sudden it wasn't there."
For years, City Auditor Mark Funkhouser and HUD have been harping on what is now Barrett's department. It's as if they were predicting the future.
In April 2000, the city and HUD audited the housing department and concluded that the city needed a new housing policy. They discovered that the city kept no current information about the amount or quality of its housing stock. The department's reports to HUD were vague. Housing department officials made decisions without consulting stakeholders in the community, and many CDCs basically had no clue what the city was up to.
Another audit a year later found that the housing department didn't have an effective way of tracking how the CDCs were spending their funds. The information that housing officials did cough up for the City Council was, Funkhouser concluded, "limited in scope and not presented in a comprehensive package." Many CDCs weren't turning in their own internal audits on time or at all; there was no way to determine whether they were fulfilling their contracts with the city -- but they continued to get city money.
Scrutiny of the housing department and the HEDFC didn't stop with Funkhouser's audits. Last year, the City Council paid the National Congress on Community Economic Development $130,000 to take a hard look at the HEDFC. That report, released in August 2001, concluded that the HEDFC "cannot accomplish such basic business tasks as developing standardized internal processes; maintaining records; generating standardized reports; communicating with outside interests regarding its products and services; or objectively measuring its efficiency in delivering product or the effectiveness of its programs."
When it came to the housing department, the report said staffers turned in incomplete project reports to HUD. These reports contained no information on how the HEDFC was spending its money -- even though the HEDFC got most of the funds that were passing through Barrett's housing department.
"Outside organizations such as CDCs, commercial banks, foundations and others see the HEDFC as lacking in administrative discipline and management structure," the report went on. "It is an organization that has trouble delivering checks reliably, cannot make and honor project commitments and does not produce adequate project and status reports." The report also criticized the organization for not forwarding payments to insurance companies -- which caused insurers to cancel homeowners' policies -- and for not paying contractors.
The report also noted that the state's affordable housing agency, the Missouri Housing Development Commission, had refused to work with the HEDFC because it was two years behind in delivering closing documents for loans. Since the early '90s, the Missouri agency had helped Kansas City support first-time home buyers with loans and down-payment assistance. But the HEDFC's delays proved costly both to families trying to get into a home and to the Missouri Housing Development Commission.
More than a year later, the Missouri agency still refuses to do business with the HEDFC, says state HDC spokesman David Bryan.
HEDFC officials say the report is exaggerated. "We wouldn't still be in business if we couldn't [deliver closing papers on time]," Bacchus contends.
Barrett says he's trying to fix the problem. "There isn't any reason they shouldn't have gotten the documents in time," he says. "We're working to cure that."
But after two harsh audits, Mayor Barnes in September 2001 created a new Housing and Community Development Committee on the City Council. This committee would recommend how to spend federal HUD money. Up until then, the head of the housing department -- Barrett was five months into the job -- would simply make a presentation to the Planning and Zoning Committee, which would rubber-stamp his recommendations.
Now the council was taking a more active role. It was basically a show of no-confidence in Barrett's Department of Housing and Community Development.
The housing committee was supposed to last just one year, but Nace says outside players, such as CDCs and private lenders, feel the process has improved with the council's oversight.
"I don't think [Barrett's department] is in tiptop shape," Nace says. "I think they have some good people in the department. I think they're holding people more accountable. But if we stopped tomorrow, we would see a slide back to the way it was."
As of a couple of months ago, it was obvious that many of Barrett's communication problems still hadn't been solved. On September 11, cranky residents of Ruskin Heights and Blue Hills packed the council chambers for one of the Housing and Community Development Committee's weekly meetings. They wanted to know what was going on.
"I am concerned about the communication issues with the department and with our residents in the community," Nace began, looking at Barrett. "We seem to have a lack of communication even within City Hall, and it's something we need to address."
In the polite rhetoric of Kansas City politics, Barrett was getting royally chewed out.
Several neighborhood leaders, including Bahner, then stepped up to the microphone to criticize Barrett. When Barrett did speak, he agreed that the Hope III promise in Ruskin Heights had been poorly realized. "I have to agree with the residents. It wasn't a very good or expedient process."
Barrett apologized to Nace, telling her, somewhat weakly, "I'm not the best e-mail responder." But Nace pressed the issue, reminding him that she had been trying to contact Barrett since August 5 -- by phone and by e-mail -- but had been unable to reach anyone in his department until September 9, two days before the meeting.
"We do need to fix this communication issue," Nace told Barrett. "That creates misunderstanding, confusion and dissatisfaction with the process on the part of the community when they try to participate and engage in these opportunities that we make available to them."
"I'm receptive to that," Barrett replied. "Again I apologize. I can assure that'll be taken care of."
At the end of the meeting, Mayor Barnes, who also serves on the committee, told the attendees, "We have to continue to work much harder at being responsive to the e-mails, the telephone calls and so on ... I don't care what an individual or department or an agency has to do to beef up their responsiveness."
It was clear that her words, as well, were directed at Barrett.
"Miscommunication has become the city's buzzword for screwing up," says Lynda Callon of the West Side Community Action Network Center. "It's this incredible catchphrase that's supposed to be an excuse. That was not a miscommunication. You just fucked up."
Supporters of Barrett's department and the HEDFC say their offices are functioning better now. Barrett says the housing department has simplified its contracts with the HEDFC to ensure better oversight. He says he's established new criteria to evaluate the agencies that apply for and receive money from his department.
Now that Bacchus has taken over the HEDFC, many community leaders, lenders and CDC chiefs are confident the organization will run more smoothly. He's already planning to overhaul the agency's computer systems before the end of the year; next month the HEDFC moves into new headquarters at Blue Parkway and Cleveland that Bacchus believes will allow the agency to run more smoothly.
And Barrett defends his own office, the one that oversees the HEDFC. "What I see are a lot of things going on that I think this department and the city are very proud of," Barrett tells the Pitch. "I'm personally proud of what this department has done."
Still, for residents in neighborhoods like Ruskin Heights, talk is cheap. In mid-November, a few weeks after the Church Community Organization's action meeting at which residents had cheered the late-arriving Barrett's promises, a television news crew followed Lillie Walker to one of the Hope III houses, on 112th Street. It was supposed to be a puff piece about a house that was almost finished.
The front of the house looked presentable except for the missing screen door and an old tub on the front lawn. "Then we went around back, and that was when we were really shocked to find the windows broken," Walker says. "It looked like there had been a pellet gun of some kind that had shot one of the windows. It was really very disappointing. They had assured us the houses we had talked about had been refurbished and were ready for resale. It definitely is not ready for sale."
As a result of the continued delays, Young and other members of the St. Matthew Church Community Organization are calling for a meeting with Barrett's superiors in the city manager's office to "ask that problems be noted in Stan's personnel file," Young says. "If problems don't improve, we'll ask for Stan's dismissal."