Fixing blight in Wichita, ‘one house at a time’

04/27/2013 4:24 PM

08/06/2014 1:13 AM

There’s an unbroken circle of blight in Wichita, city officials say, and it’s found in the stories:

• A decaying northeast Wichita house was home for years to an elderly man — blind, in a wheelchair, on a fixed income. But the home was a trap, too, with a broken ramp, tattered interior and raw sewage seeping into the backyard. Squalor, as his friends described it.
• A boarded-up ramshackle house on East 12th Street was the site of three fires and numerous police raids for drugs and prostitution.
• A four-block area off East Ninth Street has 23 vacant lots where weeds have replaced homes. It’s now targeted by the city for revitalization.

Residential blight is Wichita’s biggest housing issue, city officials say. The city/county code department has more than 4,000 open substandard housing cases, a large number for a crew of inspectors shrunk by the residential construction downturn and the city’s budget issues.

Many of the housing cases share similar stories. Once-nice homes deteriorate as their owners age and face job and income issues. Crumbling homes get passed down to out-of-towners or landlords who care more about keeping renters in them than in fixing loose boards, cracked windows and missing shingles. So the homes land in front of the City Council, which faces a decision: Find someone to fix them up, or tear them down, leaving another hole in a neighborhood.

Now, city and community officials are crafting a plan to break that circle of futility.

“Blight, to me, is dilapidated homes,” said Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams. “But dilapidated homes lead to so many other things – lack of pride, more trash on your streets than you want, violence, crime. It’s just a gateway to so many other types of problems.”

The solution city officials are crafting sounds old-fashioned. But they say they are confident they can reduce housing case numbers by repopulating neighborhoods with good housing and good homeowners who will stay. They want to create an old-style people-helping-people environment where everyone is invested in themselves and the area.

“Our people want a hand up, not a handout,” Williams said. “That’s what the older gentleman wanted. Nothing free, just a hand up.”

“At the end of the day, what do we have besides each other?” asked council member Janet Miller. “We can drag these cases into environmental court, and we have, but what exactly do we accomplish? We need to be about putting neighborhoods back together, not removing the glue that holds them together.”

Three council members are leading the effort to assemble a communitywide coalition: Miller, who represents the core and northern parts of the city; Williams, who represents the core and northeast parts of the city; and James Clendenin, who represents south and southeast Wichita.

The answer won’t – and can’t – come from throwing shrinking taxpayer dollars at blight, the council members say, though they are considering an as-yet-undefined ordinance to address blight.

It has to come from the community at large as government shrinks. The aim is to draw more attention to blight and mobilize more volunteers and donors.

“We can’t do this just from City Hall,” Miller said. “It’s obvious by now how taxpayer dollars are already pinched. We’ve got to band together as a community and work on blight, one house at a time.”

The council members already have some significant allies: Love Wichita, whose volunteers saturated the city on Saturday; Habitat for Humanity; Mennonite Housing; the Wichita Area Association of Realtors. Those organizations can bring muscle and, in the case of Habitat and Mennonite Housing, some finance options, to help potential buyers who want to renovate dilapidated homes.

But the need far outstrips the volunteer force. The city needs a roster of available tradesmen and materials to provide pro-bono service for emergency need: building materials suppliers, people with carpentry, plumbing and HVAC experience, and donors. That’s one major goal of the enhanced volunteer effort.

“It really is a marathon,” said Andy Bias, whose Mennonite Housing has built homes and apartment complexes in disadvantaged Wichita areas. “Not a sprint. Nothing to do but keep your head down and keep going. One house at a time.”

Janet Wilson, a community activist in the A. Price Woodard neighborhood of northeast Wichita, gestures with frustration at the decaying homes and trash-filled lots that pockmark the area.

“We need homeowners,” she said sharply, pointing to manicured lawns next to vacant, weedy lots full of beer bottles. “Look at it. You can tell the difference by just looking, where people own their homes. If it’s yours, you take pride in it. If you’re a renter, you see what happens.”

Activists join forces

In District 1 in central and northeast Wichita, Williams and four community activists have joined forces with the goal of building back the neighborhoods of the 1950s, where neighbors looked out for each other.

“It’s trite, I suppose, but a simpler time when friends helped friends, where you knew everyone around you,” Williams said. “I firmly believe that’s how you defeat blight — at the grassroots level with people caring for themselves and for each other.”

Wilson, Kathy Drake from the Ken Mar neighborhood, Isabelle Elder from the Murdock neighborhood and Carla Jackson-Patton from the Power neighborhood are Williams’ lieutenants, identifying blighted sites that need attention. Together, the four women represent about 75,000 Wichitans in the core part of the city.

“Four or five years ago, they were tearing down more houses in my neighborhood than they were fixing up,” Wilson said. “We got to stop that, so we’ve gone in and said, ‘Tear down the ones that absolutely need to be torn down, but let’s fix up the ones that have the bones and let somebody buy it. Let somebody who wants a home have the ability to fix it up.’

“It keeps the neighborhood. In mine, the average age is about 65. They’re aging out. They used to be able to take care of their properties, out every summer painting, fixing things, adding things. But now they’re too old to get out and do that, so their property runs down. The pride is still there, but the ability to maintain is not.

“So when you tear houses down around them, their mindset is ‘Mine is next.’ They become detached. That’s why we’ve started trying to fix up the ones that can be fixed up to bring people back into a neighborhood, rather than create a vacant lot that creates nothing but a dumping ground.”

Citizen volunteerism

Wichitans were expected to fan out Saturday across the city, clad in blue shirts, to make a dent in blight.

Love Wichita, a 5-year-old group that includes nearly 50 churches, is the poster child for a broader, citywide volunteer attack that city officials want to mount on blighted homes and neighborhoods.

“Last year, we had 2,000 volunteers. This year, we’ll have more than that,” said Karen Rogers, part of the Love Wichita core group.

Love Wichita’s annual projects include a little bit of everything – painting, repairing homes, fixing driveways and fences, trimming trees, cutting lawns, planting flowers and trees. This year, the group added a cemetery cleanup to its project list.

“They all seem like good projects to tackle,” Rogers said, “for homeowners, people who can’t physically do the work themselves or people who don’t have the resources.”

The church group is the model for the kind of citizen volunteerism that City Council members want to grow.

“Love Wichita is exactly — exactly — what we’re talking about,” council member Miller said. “What they’ve been able to accomplish in a few years, and how they’ve grown, is absolutely spectacular.”

Other groups also are helping, including the Wichita Area Association of Realtors and its Home Improvement Project group, which responds on an as-needed basis. The group needs building expertise and materials, president Tessa Hultz said.

“We stop short of anything that requires a contractor, but we’d be open to any builders with experience,” Hultz said.

“We’d like to do more.”

Making change happen

Two groups have new single- and multi-family housing projects dotting disadvantaged areas of Wichita: Habitat for Humanity and Mennonite Housing.

Ann Fox, who has headed Wichita Habitat for 18 months, is convinced that city officials are right: Blight is best fought by neighborhood investment and volunteer commitment.

“It’s really clear that Wichita’s issue is truly more than existing home inventory,” Fox said. “It’s substandard housing.

“There are a lot of homes here with deferred maintenance issues,” she said, “where folks simply can’t keep up with the cost of maintaining the stick structures we use to build homes in the Midwest. We’re working in our strategic plan trying to understand where we can serve that purpose.”

Historically, Wichita Habitat has focused on new-home construction. But Fox said national Habitat programs in cities like Milwaukee and Dallas have had great success focusing federal funding on housing rehabilitation.

“We’re asking the same questions here,” Fox said. “Where is the role we can best play? We have materials sometimes, and we have the financing piece, including several models for low-income families.”

Same story with Mennonite Housing, which has been targeting investment areas with single-family housing. It has also built multi-family housing with tax credits and replaced boarded-up ramshackle housing with new homes.

“Our intent is always to focus on those kinds of improvements,” Mennonite’s Bias said. “Can you do more? Sure. There’s always need. If we can find other dollars to leverage, we’ll work toward doing that.”

Fox said the lessons Habitat has learned nationwide validate the use of volunteerism to rebuild neighborhoods: Home ownership stabilizes neighborhoods and brings people together.

The proof came last winter.

“We had an issue toward the first of the year with burglaries in one of our neighborhoods on 43rd South just east of Hydraulic,” Fox said.

“Here’s the thing: Our neighbors know each other and they’ve worked building each other’s homes. They’re bonded. They’re invested.

“And they caught the thief on the fourth burglary.”

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