Politics & Government

Brownback vetoes blight bill; some Wichita officials frustrated

Mennonite Housing’s new development near 15th and Kansas streets has transformed a blighted area to 22 new duplexes. (March 30, 2016)
Mennonite Housing’s new development near 15th and Kansas streets has transformed a blighted area to 22 new duplexes. (March 30, 2016) File photo

Saying he was standing up for property rights in poor and minority neighborhoods, Gov. Sam Brownback on Monday vetoed a bill that would have made it easier for cities to take abandoned homes and transfer them to nonprofit housing rehabilitation groups.

Senate Bill 84 was designed to make it easier for cities to go to court to turn abandoned houses over to nonprofit groups, such as Habitat for Humanity and Mennonite Housing, that build and rehabilitate homes for the poor. It would have allowed local governments to take property that has been abandoned for at least six months and is at least two years in arrears on taxes.

The bill originated in Kansas City, Kan. It was endorsed by the Wichita City Council, which saw it as an opportunity to improve inner-city neighborhoods. It was opposed by the more conservative Sedgwick County Commission, which considered it an attack on private-property rights.

Brownback sided with the critics.

“Kansans from across the political spectrum have contacted me to discuss their concerns that this bill will disparately impact low-income and minority neighborhoods,” Brownback wrote in his veto message. “Government should protect property rights and ensure that the less advantaged are not denied the liberty to which every citizen is entitled.”

Supporters of the measure said they had no intention of taking a home that was taken care of. But they contended that a few blighted and abandoned houses, often with absentee owners, can drag down a whole neighborhood because transients, drug dealers and prostitutes often use them for illegal activity.

Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams, who represents a number of disadvantaged neighborhoods in northeast Wichita, said the intent of the bill was to make a positive difference in the lives of people in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods, not infringe on their property rights.

The bill was actually about “how long it (an abandoned house) sits and how long it gets worse,” Williams said. That, and “how long the neighbors have to deal with a neighborhood that has blight in it.”

As an example of the bill’s intent, she cited the recent completion by Mennonite Housing of the “French Quarter” at 15th and Kansas streets in Wichita. The $14 million project replaced a block of run-down fourplexes with a gated community of 34 new affordable duplexes.

She said she was disappointed with the governor’s veto but vowed to try again to come up with legislation the governor might find more palatable.

Although he didn’t give details, Brownback indicated he might be open to alternative legislation.

“There is a need to address the ability of municipalities and local communities to effectively maintain neighborhoods for public safety,” Brownback wrote in his veto message. “Though I am vetoing this bill, I would welcome legislation that empowers local communities to respond to blight and abandoned property that does not open the door to abuse of the fundamental rights of free people.”

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas