With deceptive contracts, landlords trick KCK housing inspectors by 'selling' slum houses to tenants -- but the poor buyers find that some sales are never final.

Oh, Give Me Your Home 

With deceptive contracts, landlords trick KCK housing inspectors by 'selling' slum houses to tenants -- but the poor buyers find that some sales are never final.

The sign on the door is bright pink with black, bold letters: UNFIT FOR HUMAN HABITATION. Jan Simpson sags when she sees it. She moved in just three months ago.

Back then, this house just east of I-635 in Kansas City, Kansas, seemed to provide sanctuary she desperately needed. She'd been fleeing her abusive ex, living in a seedy motel on State Street. But he found her and started paying visits. (For her protection, Pitch Weekly is not reporting her real name.) Then Simpson saw an ad for a house available for "rent or sale." She called the number and got Everett Knapp.

With no money down, he told her, she could live there for a mere $400 a month -- just the right price for a single woman raising two boys on a receptionist's salary.

Now, with the pink sign on her door, she runs to the phone and calls Knapp again. "Well, it's your property," he tells her. "You got to deal with it now."

Because he has Simpson's signature on a contract that "proves" she is a buyer -- not a renter -- Knapp can evade local laws that require landlords to provide liveable housing.

She calls the city and learns it's a false alarm. A rookie rental license inspector who'd been checking up on the place when Knapp was its landlord botched the paperwork. But the sign renews her suspicion of Knapp.

The same suspicion led her a month earlier to the Wyandotte County courthouse, where she looked up the appraised value of the house she'd bought on a $35,000 contract. The real value was a digit shorter: $5,100. And the year before, it was worth a paltry $1,200.

Truth is, the place was on the condemned list until just before she moved in. A big chunk of the roof had disappeared in a 1998 fire. Knapp, who with his wife, Betty, habitually rents out or sells KCK houses, bought a new roof. But there were still lots of problems.

In early April 2000, six months before Simpson signed the purchase agreement, a rental inspector toured the house with a clipboard. On a scorecard that allows only 25 negative points, the Knapps' property scored a whopping 349. The electricity was out, outlet covers were missing, ceiling lights were not secured. The sink leaked, and none of the bathroom fixtures was secured. The front porch sagged -- its rotting wood could barely hold its own weight. The roof drooped, the ceilings were canted, and the wood siding and rafter ends were crumbling away. And the whole house was sliding off its foundation.

Knapp contracted out the major work. The little stuff -- painting, caulking, tightening a fixture here or there -- was up to Simpson. That's how she got the house for no money down.

But now that she's living there, she's having doubts about the quality of the big-ticket repairs. The foundation is secure, but snowmelt still seeps in. "They fixed the problem, but they didn't fix the cause of the problem," she says.

So Simpson's been second-guessing the deal she struck with Knapp. "I even told the kids I'm thinking of buying a new house," she admits.

There is, however, this matter of the contract she and Knapp signed. It's been notarized and filed with the register of deeds. Yet it doesn't look as though she'll have much trouble escaping the arrangement. There's little in it -- or in the property's legal history -- to indicate that Knapp and his wife will ever transfer the house's title to Simpson.

For one, all she has to do is hand in a check three days late and the house will revert to a rental with Knapp as landlord. And on November 1, 2003, if she can't come up with a check for more than $20,000, she'll lose her claim as a buyer as well. On the one-page contract, Knapp penciled in the words "balloon payment," meaning, on this contract, "pay everything you still owe."

"I asked him about that balloon payment part," Simpson says. "But he said I could just take out a real loan then and pay him off."

That won't be easy. Just nine months before they sold her the place, the Knapps took out a mortgage on the house and another tract in Overland Park. So now the house she's buying has a $25,900 lien on it, and Simpson will be hard-pressed to find a bank that'll grant a loan on a place carrying so much debt.

And the Knapps entered another agreement the day they signed their mortgage with Valley View State Bank in Overland Park. Called an assignment of rents, this notarized and filed document seems to belie the Knapps' sale to Simpson. It acknowledges that the house she's buying is a rental, and their bank can demand that she send her "rent checks" directly to the lender.

So it's starting to dawn on Simpson that she's not so much a buyer as a tenant and that her landlord is skirting Wyandotte County's landlord laws. Of her contract, she concedes: "This is his way of keeping rentals without actually keeping them up."

Indeed, the Knapps' business plan is thumb-your-nose retaliation against local government's effort to renovate its slums and improve housing.

The flesh of the city is rotting away. On both sides of the state line, whole blocks of houses sag and tilt in decay. They're painful to look at and worse to live in. Thousands of Kansas Citians sleep amid cracked ceilings, busted walls and exposed wires. The people are the poorest of the metro area's poor, and they're funneling scant resources into the coffers of the men and women who own the properties but refuse to care for them.

Though most landlords are decent, a few live by a greedy, four-point credo -- buy low, rent as high as possible, don't spend a dime on repairs, then bail out before the place falls down. And these slumlords tend to own a lot of homes, so their impact is profound.

Leaders across the city are grasping at solutions. In 1995, Kansas City, Kansas, took a step toward dealing with the problem when Unified Government signed into law a rental-licensing program. It requires landlords to register properties, pay a modest fee and -- most important -- submit rentals to annual inspections. When problems are discovered, landlords are expected to fix them or risk losing their right to do business.

"Individuals who control rental property are making money," says John Mendez, director of neighborhood and regional affairs for Unified Government. "We want to see that money, some of that money, put back into that structure to improve the quality of life of the neighborhood and to provide people a safe, decent opportunity to live."

But the landlords figured out a way around it.

They started "selling" their properties on contract for deed -- sort of a homemade mortgage program in which the owner, not a commercial lender, accepts payment for the property over a drawn-out period. With the stroke of a pen, the owners flip responsibility for their properties onto their tenants and protect their own steady cash flow. "Once it became known that if you switched property over to contract for deed, rental licensing would not apply, within a month period we got, like, 400 of them," says Ken Moore, the county attorney who helped draft the ordinance. "It increased tenfold."

Since the rental licensing law went into effect, more than 1,200 new contract-for-deed sales have been documented by the rental-licensing department.

And officials quickly learned that many of these new sales weren't really sales at all. "What we were finding was [the landlords] weren't treating them like a contract for deed," Moore explains. "They were treating them like a lease. It was like we'd get a contract for deed, then all of a sudden, a year later, we'd have another contract for deed on the same property, but they would never foreclose to cancel out that other person's equitable interest in the property."

One study by government officials found that over a year's span, more than a third of these so-called sales were executed and then, after a short time, nullified.

In an increasing number of cases, city leaders have switched the focus of their attack on blight to the very people they sought to protect: poor folk who can barely afford rent. And in the process, more and more residents have fallen prey to an age-old ghetto scam, one that thrives on their desperation and their ignorance of real-estate law.

It's just a sheet of paper. Across the top, in bold, are the words "Contract for Deed." Below are several sentences broken up by fill-in-the-blank lines. Below those are a few paragraphs of italic letters barely larger than gnats. You can buy a whole pad at a business-supply store. Fill in the monthly payment, sign at the bottom and there you have it: a home sold the old-fashioned way.

In four years as head of the home-buyer education program at El Centro, a nonprofit community resource center in south KCK, Licha Ibarra has seen quite a few such contracts. Her warning is always the same: Don't sign them.

In principle, contracts for deeds fill a need wherever the housing stock and the buyers are deemed unworthy by mainstream banks. A person can get a house key for little or no money down and make payments at or below an average rent -- all without having his or her credit history investigated or impugned.

But more often than not, Ibarra has found, the buyers get screwed. She's seen cases where houses were sold for twice or nearly three times their appraised values. Others have been sold with numerous code violations. She recalls a man selling homes he didn't even own.

The worse case by far came to her this past fall, when a man called at the urging of his brother-in-law, who had just completed Ibarra's class. She paid a visit to the home, for which he had dropped a $2,000 down payment and agreed to send the seller $500 monthly until a balance of $17,900 was paid off. Immediately she could tell he'd been suckered. The place wasn't worth $20,000 -- the county had appraised it at $10,600.

The house was not much bigger than a carport. The kitchen light was a bulb on a wire. More wires lay exposed beside the sink.

But the buyer, who asked to remain anonymous, is a carpenter, so he added a couple of rooms and a bathroom to the basement, which, when he bought the house, was little more than a hole in dirt.

"It was cute," Ibarra recalls of the addition. But it pained her because she knew the man would have a hard time laying claim to his investment. The way his contract is written, it's unlikely he'll ever possess the deed for his home.

She pointed to a tiny line handwritten on the legal document: "Total balloon payment Sept. 16th, 2001." If the buyer doesn't pay the full balance owed on the house -- more than $15,000 -- he'll default on the contract, and the deal will revert to a rental. He'll lose his down payment and all the money he sank into improvements.

Moreover, the contract allows a paltry three-day grace period for payments. So if he misses his "mortgage payment" by so much as a holiday weekend, his whole homeownership dream will sink.

The man was aghast. He didn't speak English and hadn't a clue what those few extra scribbles on his contract meant.

Ibarra called the seller, Knapp again, and explained the situation. Knapp didn't seem to care. He said an interpreter was present at signing, so Ibarra's client should have understood.

But, she explained, "balloon payment" is contractual language even many English speakers don't understand.

"Well, maybe he thought he was getting a balloon with the house," Knapp quipped.

What she didn't know at the time was that Knapp and the buyer weren't the only ones with claims on the house. According to county files, just seven months before selling the house, Knapp took out a mortgage on it and another property in KCK. The total lien on the two properties is $30,000. If Knapp defaults -- or if the bank chooses to exercise a mortgage clause and demand full payment because the property was sold on contract for deed -- this buyer is going to lose. Also, even if Ibarra's client somehow finds the money to make his balloon payment, he'll also have to pay off the Knapps' loan.

Such practices evoke strong opinions:

"People like this should be put in jail," says Richard Ruiz, executive director of El Centro. "What they're doing is all perfectly legal, but they should still be thrown in jail."

Gerald Ulrich believes he's found a way to improve the inner city: sell rental properties on contract for deed. "It's a win-win situation," he says.

Since 1988, he had rented out a dozen or so properties in some of the most blighted areas of KCK, but he's getting on in age, and he wants out of the business. So this past April he offered all of his tenants the opportunity to buy their homes. They wouldn't need to put any money down, he told them, and their payments would be pretty much the same as their rents. Even before KCK passed its rental law he had sold properties this way, and he claims the sales worked out well.

He filed all the contracts for deeds with the register of deeds. His are not the store-bought variety. They provide an amortization schedule that breaks down the principle and interest of each payment as well as the escrow payments toward insurance and taxes on the property. They outline the buyers' responsibilities for maintaining the property. A clause states that if Ulrich defaults in any way, he'll refund half of what's already been paid. He'll front cash for some home improvements and add those costs to the principal. "What bank does that?" he asks.

With no money down, his customers can own a home in just eight to twelve years.

Du'Bwa Moses is one of his buyers. She sees the house as a "stepping stone" toward her dream, which is owning a "cobblestone house with a wraparound porch" somewhere on the edge of town. She envisions herself one day owning a place where she can help others use creative expression and cultural pride to lift herself off of public assistance and out of the shackles of inner-city poverty. "I'd like to have a place where people can come and just create from their souls," says Moses, who teaches full time.

For now she makes do with her two-story house on North 21st Street. On an icy January day, the house is warm and filled with activity as her kids play video games, piece together puzzles and show off their Kwanzaa presents. But the walls are dingy and cracking. To flush the toilet, Moses has to fish a hanger into the tank and pull up the stopper. Pliers serve as the hot and cold faucet handles in the bathtub, which is tucked against a wooden wall rotting from decades of steam. The floor under the toilet wobbles. From below, in the dining room, a rectangular outline in the ceiling where the toilet rests above is visible; around its edges are stains from when the bowl overflowed and leaked onto the dinner table. In one of the kids' rooms, a quarter-inch-wide crack runs the distance of the warped ceiling. In heavy rain and snow, dirty water drips onto the floor.

She's buying the place for a little more than $16,000, although it's valued by the county appraiser at a mere $7,500. Ulrich says he paid no mind to that when he drafted the contract. He simply multiplied the amount he makes in rent over a twelve-year period and drafted the amortization schedule accordingly. "I used to be a math teacher, so it's pretty easy for me to figure out interest rates and all that," he explains.

Of the "win-win" nature of her contract for deed, Moses is skeptical. "Mr. Ulrich is better than a lot of landlords," she says. "But he thought of a brilliant way to get out of having to take care of the maintenance, or the taxes. That was smart."

"I know Du'Bwa says she has some problems with this, but I've gone out of my way to make a good deal for her," Ulrich says. "And the contract says if she wants, she can walk away today and leave that property to me. She can."

And like all contracts for deeds, Ulrich's allow him to reclaim when buyers default. But that's not as easy as it sounds. Because, as buyers, they possess an equitible interest in the property, Ulrich can't simply kick them out the way he could a renter. According to Rick Rehorn, a KCK lawyer and state legislator, most Kansas courts will offer a three- to six-month grace period, especially when a buyer has been paying on the property for a number of years.

But Ulrich says he would prefer to leave the legal system out of it. Though he's never foreclosed on one of his sales, he says "it would be ideal" if the buyer would simply leave upon default.

There's a good chance Ulrich's buyers would abide by his ideal. As was shown in a 1998 Wyandotte County study, one out of three contract-for-deed sales was resold within a year. It seems none of these buyers was aware of the right to challenge a foreclosure in court.

These buyers also seem unaware that even if they do fulfill their contracts, they might never lay claim to their homes. To guarantee a clean transfer of a property's title once a contract for deed is paid off, the deed should be held in escrow with a title company, according to Shonda Vaughan, owner of Real Systems Brokerage of Overland Park. She advises this be done when she brokers a seller-financed deal "because that way, the buyer's not in a situation where the seller holds the title, and the title never gets turned over to them," she explains.

But rarely do inner-city sellers involve a title company. Even Ulrich, who is trying to give his customers a fair shake, admits he holds on to the title himself. So once Du'Bwa Moses pays off her house, she'll have to trust him to hand over the deed. If for some reason he decides not to, she'll have to dig into her pocket, hire a lawyer and take him to court.

"When people walk into my office with one of these contracts for deeds, nine times out of ten, it's a mess," says attorney and legislator Rehorn. One such mess was Jackie Thomas' case, an unresolved tangle that reveals how such transactions can fuel the misery of life in inner cities. As in many such tales, the victim, with her ignorance of real-estate law, shares some of the blame.

In 1995, Thomas worked two jobs to support seven kids. With such a big family, she had a hard time finding a place to live. She spotted an ad in the newspaper for a house available "rent to own." She called the number and met the sellers, Sou and Yer Thao, for a tour of the property. "It was in pretty bad shape," she recalls.

But the sellers promised to fix the place up. She came back a few weeks later and was happy with what she saw. They'd repainted the whole place in her favorite color, green. "I thought that was kind of neat," she says.

The house wasn't much bigger than a shed, and the seven kids had to double up in three of the four tiny rooms. After a hard rain, holes opened up in the ceiling and water dripped down on the Thomases. One night, her son Cedric ran up the stairs and yelled, "Mama, come here! The basement is flooded."

She looked down where two of her kids slept every night and couldn't see past the fourth stair. Toys and clothes floated on brown water.

As the house deteriorated, other troubles beset the family. Gone sixteen hours a day to work back-to-back shifts at Kmart and McDonald's, Thomas couldn't tend to her kids. Some started skipping school, and soon the social workers showed up. They assigned the family to a caseworker at Family Preservation, a not-for-profit agency that helps struggling families keep their children out of foster care. "They didn't ever give me the help I needed," Thomas says.

What Thomas needed was help with her house. She didn't have the time or resources to deal with it. "They told me all I needed to do was keep it clean," she says.

Under her kids' watch, even that didn't happen. Grass and weeds grew 6 feet high. So much garbage and debris accumulated that when it rained, junk would wash down the streets and clog the gutter. Neighbors complained again and again. She was cited so often for exterior code violations that she eventually just started blowing off the notices.

Her 14-year-old daughter got pregnant. Family Preservation urged Thomas to quit one job so she could spend more time with her kids. Matters got worse. She fell behind on utility payments, and eventually the gas and electricity were shut off. Finally, she waved a white flag, asking that the state take her kids into temporary custody until she could get her house in order.

At the same time, code enforcers swept in and tacked an "unfit for human habitation" sign on her front door.

When the cops came to gather her kids, one of her sons fled, crying all the way to his best friend's house. The friend's mother took his hand and marched a few blocks to University United Methodist Church and told the story to Pastor Lynn Lamberty.

He vowed to lend a hand. He attended Jackie's child-custody hearing and told the judge the church would help fix the house. With neighborhood volunteers and donations from members of his congregation, improvements were made.

But the family still awaits a full reunion because of a major problem with the house. After that flood sent her son up the stairs years ago, the family pulled back paneling and discovered a massive crack in the building's foundation. With the other improvements, Thomas has been able to get most of her kids back. But until the crack is fixed and the house is made safe, the rest will have to stay in foster care. "I'm not sure how we're going to fix that," Lamberty says. "We've had contractors out to look at it and have learned that it will cost several thousand dollars to fix."

What makes the situation even tougher is the tenuous legal hold Thomas has over her property. While Thomas insists she paid off the contract long ago, Sou Thao says Thomas still owes money, and he's holding on to the deed. But he won't foreclose on the property because the legal work would cost more than the property is worth.

"If I get the house back, I'd have to do a lot of work, so for now I don't care," Thao says.

"The title of that property is all clouded," says Rehorn, who has represented Thomas off and on since 1998, when the Thaos tried to evict her as if she were a renter, even though she had agreed to a contract for deed. "Right now it's just sitting there."

Because Thomas does not own the place outright, local philanthropists have been reluctant to contribute to her cause. And the scarce government resources available for low- or no-interest emergency home improvement loans are not available for most contract-for-deed properties, including Thomas'.

"We can't put liens against them because most won't allow us to," says Julie Hostak, program manager for the Unified Government's housing and community development division. Her department divvies more than $400,000 a year into small loans to help people fix up properties. The only thing Hostak can do on contracts for deeds -- which she's quick to call "evil" -- is buy out the remainder of the contract. But she says her department has never done that because, too often, buyers owe too much on their property, and the loan won't cover the balance and the needed improvements. Or, as in Thomas' case, buyers don't own clear title to the home.

Everett Knapp admits he's found a way to get around the rental-licensing law and all the codes inspections. He says contracts for deeds are "one way to beat" Unified Government officials. "They're a bunch of crooks. They're like the Mafia. They don't want people to have rental houses," he says.

But as he's pressed on the nature of his transactions, he begins to clam up. "I don't want you to quote me," he says, before referring all questions to his "business partner," Betty. When called the next day, she says, "We have no comment to make to you."

Operating from their $171,600 house in Overland Park, the couple are among the most notorious landlords doing business in Wyandotte County. A file search in the register of deeds turns up nearly 150 real-estate documents, dating back to 1978. The Knapps now own six properties worth a total of $86,440 -- about half the value of their own house. When Everett walks into the codes department, folks there recognize him on sight.

He assures Pitch Weekly the properties he has sold after the passage of the rental-license law are legitimate sales, that he has every intention of handing over the deeds once his customers pay. But he won't explain the almost impossible contracts he's written. Nor will he comment on the pair of fat files in the Wyandotte County courthouse that show how hard it is to get a fair deal from him and his wife.

Four years ago, two of the Knapps' customers tried to haul the couple into court. In April 1995, the year rental licensing became law in Wyandotte County, Debra Anshutz and Terry Tessier signed to buy the house at 219 N. 22nd Street for $19,000. It called for the couple to make monthly payments of $400.

After eight months, the couple tried to take out a regular bank loan to pay off their debt to the Knapps. But in a civil suit they filed in 1996, Anshutz and Tessier alleged that, despite repeated demands, the Knapps refused to tell them how much they'd have to pay to get out of the contract.

This case file ends without resolution. Neither Tessier nor Anshutz could be reached for comment. Their lawyer, Jennifer Blum, of Baker and Blum in Overland Park, has no idea where they are. Nor does she recall the case well enough to comment on it.

One thing is certain, though. The Knapps still own 219 N. 22nd Street.

There was, however, one time when the Knapps lost. On September 29, 1999, a jury in a civil suit found that they had violated the Kansas Consumer Protection Act and ordered them to pay Johnnie and Virginia Lawrence $19,500, according to court documents.

The battle had begun a year and a half earlier when the couple forked over $15,000 and signed a contract to buy the house at 3622 Grandview Boulevard.

Armed with just a seventh-grade education and suffering from a disability, Johnnie Lawrence didn't have much earning potential. The $15,000 was a once-in-a-lifetime windfall from his son, who had been injured and was awarded a large settlement. He gave his parents the excess cash after buying himself a house.

They selected a house they had rented years ago from the Knapps. In the interim, the place had racked up numerous code violations, most of them for tall weeds, trash and the like. The Lawrences moved in and started cleaning up.

After a month or so, a city inspector paid a follow-up visit. Weeds had been removed, leaving a clear view of the home's foundation. It was "buckling, deteriorating and pulling away from the concrete slab," the inspector reported. Full examination revealed major problems with the roof, siding, doors, windows, electrical work, drainage, ceilings and floors. In that same inspection procedure that allows 25 negative points, the assessment tallied 508 points.

The Lawrences took the matter to a lawyer. But when their counselors looked into the contract, they found more problems. "It required my clients to give the sellers a whole bunch of money," recalls Laura McConwell of McConwell Law Offices in Mission. "But it never required the sellers to give them the property."

Once the code violations became documented, though, and it was clear they would be the Knapps' responsibility, the couple ducked and bestowed the property's title on the Lawrences by quick-claim deed.

But that wasn't good enough for the Lawrences and their lawyer. They wanted their money back, with damages.

The Knapps countersued, saying the Lawrences themselves had done all the damage to the house in the few months they lived there -- and demanded a payment of $4,000. In court, Everett tried to prove the Lawrences' guilt by providing photographs he claimed were taken while they lived in the house. With Everett on the witness stand, McConwell turned the prints over and saw that they were dated two years prior to the Lawrences' move-in date.

"Then he copped an attitude in court," McConwell recalls. "He started referring to my clients as 'those people.'" At one point she asked him whether he would have rented to the Lawrences instead of entering a contract for deed. He said he wouldn't have because of their income level and their appearance. "Just look at them," he said.

The jurors were appalled. They asked the judge if they could award more money than the plaintiffs were asking for, which the judge denied.

"My clients were not sophisticated and not bright, but they were sure entitled to a fair deal," McConwell says. "I think [Everett Knapp] takes advantage of the less educated, and I wish the city would do something about it."

It's a Friday morning in January, and a few of Wyandotte County's head honchos are gathered in a conference room for a round of denial:

"Selling property on contract for deed is a perfectly legal practice," says John Mendez, sounding incredulous at the suggestion of a problem. "It's a common thing. I bought my first property that way."

"I think you'll find [contracts for deed are] a commonality in other jurisdictions, not just ours," says Don Denney, spokesman for Mayor Carol Marinovich, who for two weeks rebuffed Pitch Weekly's requests for even a short interview. "There's not really a way that we as a government can track how many we had prior to rental licensing and what we have now. We very well could have had the same amount -- if not more -- before rental licensing."

"Without the statistics to verify that contract for deed has turned ugly in Kansas City, Kansas, and Wyandotte County because of rental licensing, I don't think it's a fair statement to make," says Delia York, an assistant Unified Government attorney who prosecutes housing violations but was not with the city when rental licensing became law.

It's true. The Unified Government didn't have a system for tracking contracts for deeds prior to the passage of the rental licensing law. But once the law passed, officials started keeping track. Yet the 1,200 transactions on the officials' list come nowhere near representing all of the rentals-turned-sales in Wyandotte County. Not one of the cases in this article appears on the list.

The official denials refute history: Just two years ago, the Unified Government commissioners passed an amendment to the rental licensing law to deal with the contract-for-deed problem. It declared that all former rental properties now being sold on contract for deed will not be honored as such unless they are filed with the register of deeds. (This would seem to put the pinch on the so-called sellers, because registering their contracts clouds their title and means they could have difficulty ultimately capitalizing on their investment. But it fails to take into consideration the slumlord's strategy: Buy low, rent high, don't fix, then abandon when beyond repair.)

To support the amendment, attorney Moore wrote a memo to Commissioner John "Tiny" McTaggert on March 25, 1998. "The rental license department staff advised that in several cases, a landlord has obtained a rental license only to subsequently 'sell' the property pursuant to a contract for deed after the property is scheduled for or fails inspection," it reads. "By claiming that the property has been 'sold,' the landlord then argues that the rental license ordinance is inapplicable and the occupant continues to reside in substandard housing."

The letter went on to say that by cross-referencing utility records and property titles, the staff determined that 54 of 149 contract-for-deed properties were occupied by someone other than the owner -- slightly more than a third. "To me it was pretty damning evidence," Moore recalls.

Incredibly, when asked about this study, Debby Graber, who was and still is the manager of the very department that generated it, holds her hands together on her lap and says, "I don't have any knowledge of that. I don't have any statistics."

So why are these civic leaders, who have been grappling with this problem for years, suddenly trying to duck and hide? Perhaps it's because victories in the war on blight are hard to come by and Wyandotte County's rental-licensing law was one of the most valiant attempts to win one in the metro area. Mayoral spokesman Denney, for one, is quick to point out the law's benefits: There has been a decrease in blight, he says, an increase in overall property valuation, and increased "pride in the community." He proudly looks back on a case several years ago in which rental inspectors discovered an apartment complex at 18th and Washington where people were paying $500 a month to live without working toilets. "We got that place shut down and found those people places to live," he says.

And all the folks gathered for this Friday PR blitz agree that contract-for-deed sales don't derail the city's ultimate goal of cracking down on code violations. They say that it just means they'll have to shift the focus of their enforcement efforts. But they seem reluctant to acknowledge that this shift now puts the crosshairs on the very people Unified Government aimed to protect with their rental-license law: Poor people who are seeking, in the words of Mendez, "a safe, decent opportunity to live."

Nor do they admit that the city's contract-for-deed housing stock may not be monitored as aggressively as rental property. When a single-family property is licensed as a rental, it's subject to a full interior and exterior inspection each year. Owner-occupied homes are typically inspected only from the exterior, after a called-in complaint or as part of a neighborhood sweep. "We have to have permission to go inside," explains KCK Police Captain Gayle Beth, who oversees both the code-enforcement and rental-license departments.

It's only after the reporter's notebook is closed that KCK officials begin to soften up. "We're sensitive to it," says Mendez. "We care about people. We don't like what it does to people. We have a job to do here, and we're trying to improve the quality of life out there through rental licensing, code enforcement. And we'll continue to do that. It doesn't mean we're not sensitive to people's needs."

"There isn't anybody in their right mind that knows the ands, ifs, buts, dot-your-Ts, cross-your-I's, whatever, that doesn't think this is wrong," says Denney, adding that rental licensing is "not without its problems. Please understand that. But we've come a long way, and as we go along and discover the various problems, we take the measures" to correct the problems and assess procedures.

And therein might lie the real source of their demur. There really isn't a lot a municipality can do about unscrupulous landlords' scamming poor people with contracts for deeds. Because land laws pass at the state level, changes in Wyandotte County have to come from Topeka. Freedom to control one's own property is one of America's most sacred and fundamental rights. It's even harder when you're up against landlords -- a wealthy, savvy and organized lot. "We've talked about whether legislation is the solution," says Rick Rehorn, state representative for KCK. He has contemplated whether a new law would help, "but I can't think of one."

And even if he could, there's no telling what kind of scam landlords would conjure to get around it.


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