Opinion Columns & Blogs

Lavonta Williams: Status quo on blight is not acceptable

For the vast majority of Wichita residents, housing blight isn't a daily concern. Most of us walk outside each morning, greet our neighbors and appreciate the well-maintained homes that surround us.

But for some residents, that simple pleasure is corrupted by decrepit buildings that have no use other than as painful eyesores at best, and gathering places for criminal activity at worst.

Year after year, the city of Wichita has wrestled with the problem, searching for solutions that will improve the character of rundown neighborhoods while respecting individual property rights.

One of the most painful duties for a Wichita City Council member is the weekly review of housing condemnation reports. The homes recommended for demolition have exhausted every possible avenue for rehabilitation.

Demolition is a last resort that should be avoided. With better strategies and more effective intervention, many of these dwellings could be restored as part of our vital stock of low- and moderate-income housing.

Though the frustration continues, so does our hope for a better outcome. Responding to concerns by residents and the City Council, the staff at City Hall has begun a new campaign to find out why blighted neighborhoods exist and why it is so difficult to bring change.

The initiative begins with the formation of a housing task force, including key stakeholders from the public and private sector. The task force will review the in-depth data compiled by the city and look for innovative approaches to address the problem.

The effort will also include the second phase of the New Communities Initiative, which began in 2006. The second phase, titled "New Communities — Investing in People and Property," will engage citizens to create a targeted approach to neighborhood improvement.

The size of the problem is daunting. The office of central inspection received nearly 2,500 complaints last year, adding to the 4,000 complaints carried over from previous years. Historically, we resolve a fraction of those cases. The remainder can drag on for years.

Vacant, abandoned dwellings that are falling apart are the most visible problem. But data collected by the city indicates that occupied houses generate the most complaints. Among those, rental dwellings represent more than half of the problems.

Partnerships are the key to success. City and county governments must work together on housing-code compliance. Nonprofit housing organizations must continue to save blighted housing and restore it to a habitable state. Landlords must be held accountable for housing violations. Neighbors must work together to instill community pride and encourage fellow residents to respect others by maintaining clean and functional properties.

Any long-term solution must include a rejuvenation of personal responsibility along with focused and targeted public policies. One thing is clear: The status quo is not acceptable. Every taxpaying resident of the city has a stake in eradicating residential blight.