Matt Keeney pulls a city-issued white Ford Focus to the curb in front of 4543 South Benton Avenue. The bushes in front of the 101-year-old white bungalow here have grown rampant, blocking a small set of concrete stairs from the sidewalk to the boarded-up front door. This is what Keeney, a field inspector for the Neighborhoods and Housing Services Department, has come to see.
Across the street, another house's screen door opens enough for a man to poke his head out and offer a little advice. "Y'all be careful," he shouts. "A family of raccoons lives there. There are seven of them!"
Keeney is here to assess the property for the Kansas City, Missouri, Land Bank. Its object: Take ownership of derelict properties. He examines the house's scrubby exterior and sagging roof for a minute, and he knows.
"I can see, based on the roof, this is going to more than likely be recommended to be demolished," he says.
"Probably more than half of them need to be demolished," David Park says of the approximately 850 houses held by the land bank.
Park, the deputy director for Neighborhoods and Housing Services, has been a city employee for 36 years. This attempt at a land-bank model isn't a new idea, but it is, he says, an improvement over what came before.
The land bank is a central ownership entity for properties that have fallen into tax foreclosure and then gone unpurchased at auction. It also holds properties within city limits that had previously been owned by the Jackson County Land Trust.
Since being approved by the state Legislature last year (after failing to pass during the two previous sessions), the land bank has taken possession of more than 3,600 properties throughout the city. Now, Park says, Kansas City can do more with the properties than the land trust was able to do — an improved arrangement if only because KC spent the past decade shelling out cash to deal with the properties anyway.
"The city was spending $1.8 million a year, approximately, maintaining land-trust properties," he says. "The city is the one paying the bills, but it had no say in what happened to the properties." And the bills were going up. "Just the weed [removal] itself has probably gone over the last 10 years from $300,000 to $800,000," he says. "It's been growing the last few years as the inventory grows."
The land bank is now assessing its holdings, which include empty lots, homes and nonresidential buildings, so they can be sold to investors through the bank's website. (So far, pending closing, the land bank has agreements to sell 39 properties, most of them vacant lots.)
"We don't want to hold on to properties," Park says. "We want to sell properties."
One big challenge, though, is that the majority of the bank's holdings are either small urban lots that can't be built on or side lots that abut an occupied property. Park says his team is going to have to be a little creative in unloading the parcels.
"Our thinking was, one way to deal with those — to get them back on the tax rolls and out of our maintenance budget — would be to let the next-door neighbor buy it," Park says. A homeowner living next to an unexpectedly available parcel could, for instance, end up with a larger yard. "Problem solved," he says.
Some such sales have cleared for $1. Even so, the bank has already uncovered a few quirks that can't easily be unkinked. One property that has made its way onto the land bank's ledger is a 7.5-square-foot parcel within the front yard of an occupied home in south Kansas City. It's the result of platting errors handed down unnoticed over decades of recordkeeping. It's also, Park says, an example of why the bank is selling certain lots only to neighboring owners.
"We don't want somebody buying it and putting a fence around it in their yard," he says of that tiny unowned segment of grass.
The land bank does have some homes that are in good enough condition to attract new owners — something that Park says could greatly improve neighborhoods. That's because the land bank means to hold developers accountable for their proposals. The purchase process requires that a prospective buyer explain his or her plans for the property when making an offer.
"Somebody can say, 'I'm only going to give you $100 for that property, because I'm going to put $30,000 into the structure,'" Park says. "If they don't put that $30,000 in, or if they don't make the repairs they promised to make with that $30,000, the land bank can foreclose and take it back."
Developers also must prove that they have the financial stability to improve the home, pass a background check, and agree to occupy the home for three years.
"If a house has been vacant for two or three years," Park says, "and you say, 'Well, I'm going to paint it' — OK, tell us what else you're going to do."
The land bank is also able to invoke that ancient adage of business: You gotta spend money to make money. For Park, that means attending tax-foreclosure auctions on the steps outside the Jackson County Courthouse to bid on properties. With smart but modest investments, the thinking goes, the bank can pick up a little window dressing to go with its more blighted holdings. Relatively move-in-ready properties could draw eyes to the rest of the bank's holdings while bringing in needed revenue.
"You want to have good properties in your inventory, because you make money off of those to cover your costs of maintaining the properties that are difficult or impossible to sell," Park says. "Somebody's got to mow. Somebody's got to clean up the trash. Somebody's got to keep it boarded."
At an August 6 tax-foreclosure auction, a couple of hundred people showed up to the courthouse, looking to snap up properties on the cheap. The crowd was racially diverse, with every age group represented and a miniature U.N. of languages spoken. Families waited with their bored children as the temperature climbed toward the mid-90s. A few arrived early enough to find space for their camping chairs in the shadow of the building, but many more more sweated in the sun.
Just about everybody at the auction clutched a copy of a newspaper ad listing the process. They'd circled properties in marker, readied themselves for bidding wars. (Park had already decided to pass on everything that day — knowing the land bank would end up with something anyway.) Most of what went up, though, didn't attract that kind of interest.
"Next parcel is K20121087," the auctioneer droned. "Any bids?"
"Seeing no bids. Next parcel."
The next one also failed to attract a buyer, and in two minutes the land bank was burdened with two more properties.
That means two more properties to add to a website that doesn't yet include photos of most of what's available. Two more properties for city employees to research and then input into a database. Two more properties to inspect and, perhaps, tear down.
When Park was studying how to set up his office, he spoke with the director of a land bank in Michigan, who told him, "Well, we're big. We've got 600 properties and only 14 staff members."
"OK," Park says, "now I've got 3,600 properties and five staff members, not counting me." He chuckles.
At that South Benton house where raccoons may be squatting, Keeney is ready to go inside. The field inspector, one of Park's five staff members, has left the land bank's bland Swope Parkway office to spend this sweltering Tuesday making notes on a handful of properties.
A quick scan of the land bank's website map shows two basic commonalities: that most of the holdings are east of Troost, and that the properties are in closely proximate clusters. There's the one, for example, on Benton Boulevard between East Linwood and East 41st Street: 10 buildings in an eight-block stretch. Another stands between Topping and White avenues, south of Dunbar Park — an area eaten up by encroaching brush and illegal garbage dumping. Some of the single-lane streets look like nature paths rather than thoroughfares, with tree branches hanging low enough to graze passing cars. The bank holds nine properties in this area, and there appear to be even fewer occupied homes.
With the front door inaccessible, Keeney walks around to the overgrown backyard. Normally, he'd use a power drill to remove the screws from the board covering a door. But here, someone has smashed in the wooden cellar door, revealing a 2-foot-wide stone staircase littered with trash and wooden shards and swarmed by giant black flies.
"City of Kansas City!" Keeney yells. "This is city-owned property. Hello?"
No answer. Down Keeney goes.
His first stop is the fuse box, which, as he expected, has been stripped of copper. Upstairs, black mold stretches across the living room and dining room walls almost as completely as a coat of paint. "Fuck this block," reads a graffiti tag. On the floor, raccoon feces. In the future: razing.
"One house I was in the other day had a lot of nursing-school books," Keeney says. "You don't know where people's lives were interrupted, and if they were able to bounce back from an economic hardship."
A block west, another city-owned property, another decaying roof.
Keeney takes off the board over the door. Inside this home, the swiftness of a transition from homeownership to eviction is even starker. The house remains so dense with possessions that it's possible to wonder whether the family might simply be on vacation. Sunlight fills the rooms. The couch is still in the living room. A big dining table waits under a ceiling fan. The basement is cluttered with toys for boys and girls.
Keeney points to a basket of kids' books. He says, "That always breaks my heart —Berenstain Bears." He drills the door board back up on his way out, though this house is as doomed as the last.
He drives to the next property on his list —a sprawling, two-story commercial building at 3200 Gillham, near Martini Corner. The building used to house a laundry business, but the structure has been vacant for years.
"We're getting offers for it," Park says. "I think what happens to it is going to be crucial for the area."
The reason for his optimism is clear enough: The building is in a good location and is big enough to accommodate a range of purposes. But it's in awful condition. Outside the back door, two piles of human excrement wait to be stepped in. Inside, the building is a museum of transient lifestyles: soiled futon mattresses and cushions, a room filled with empty beer cases, a propane tank.
The second story looks in better shape, with open spaces and large windows and knotty wood beams. Certain parts of the building look as though they were once remodeled with care. There are several glassed-in offices and rooms of various sizes throughout the structure.
"Up here you can get a feel for the industrial condo [possibilities]," Keeney says.
There's still the basement to see, though. Keeney points his flashlight toward the bottom of the stairs, and the beam reflects back up the dark stairwell. Water. The basement is flooded.
"You'd have to pump all the water out," he says. "I have no idea what the cost of that would be."
Keeney walks out of the building and back to his Focus. On the return trip to the office, he says the land bank is more than just a collection of dumpy buildings, more than a burden on the city. The decent properties, he says, are opportunities for people — especially young people — who want to own something.
"If you're paying rent and you have steady employment, and have a couple thousand dollars in savings, you might have an opportunity to very soon be living rent-free," he says. His voice is more upbeat than you'd expect of someone who has seen human feces smeared on abandoned walls today.
"If you can just manage to put as little as $10,000 into some of these properties, and a lot of sweat equity, you might be living without paying rent within a couple of years."