Health Forward is proud to be a supporting partner in this effort of building healthy communities. This article was originally published Aug. 26, 2019 on LINC’s website. Republished with permission.
Private attorney Anna Berman doesn’t do first entries into abandoned houses anymore.
“I don’t need to go in there,” she said as she swapped horror stories with weary Kansas City home rehabbers who do go in.
Consider the 50 raccoons that rehabber Danny Tipton said he found nesting in an indoor mountain of trash.
“Fifty,” he said. “Five-oh.”
Berman’s not ducking her responsibilities. For sure, she and the rest of the volunteer attorneys from law firms partnering in Legal Aid of Western Missouri’s Adopt-A-Neighborhood Project have plenty of work to do after that initial entry shock.
Because those physical hazards that the rehabbers describe are not the thorniest problems that keep determined neighborhoods crippled with persistent property distress.
It’s not so much the trouble with squatters, like the man that home rehabber Katie Chepulis found sleeping amid the trash inside her reclamation project in the 6600 block of Broadmoor Road.
Nor is it the hoarder’s piles stacked to the ceiling on the insides, or the trash-strewn weeds rioting against the outsides. It’s not the broken roofs. It’s not the dead animals and their rat-picked skeletons . . .
The main reason bad houses “just sat there and sat there,” said Nina Whiteside-McCord, a leader of the Neighborhood United For Action (NUFA) in mid-KC, is because of court barriers and city regulations.
“You couldn’t get anybody to do anything,” she said.
That’s where the volunteer lawyers come in.
The list of things that the legal teams do to help motivated citizens get their communities out of neutral and on to revival goes on and on.
Demand letters on neglected property owners, negotiations, drafting petitions, filing lawsuits, finding and serving all potential parties, contracts, evidentiary hearings, deeds, demolition lien waivers . . .
“One case had 17 defendants” with potential claims to a piece of property, said Legal Aid staff attorney Abby Judah. Many claimants are out-of-state. Many are out-of-country.
Well-intentioned rehabbers can’t deal with this. The legal fees alone would far exceed the value of the property.
This is the maddening fine print of community restoration that requires more attorneys — people like Berman, from the Kutak Rock law firm, who says, “This is in my wheelhouse.”
Kutak Rock, teaming up with the NUFA neighborhood, was one of the first firms to join Adopt-A-Neighborhood in 2015 — tackling problems like this block on Broadmoor where Chepulis and the Tiptons, the father-and-son team of GT Home Solutions, have gone to work.
The Marlborough Community Coalition teamed with the Stinson law firm in the program’s first partnership.
The other Adopt-A-Neighborhood pairs match the Key Coalition neighborhood with the Polsinelli law firm; Wendell Phillips with Dentons US; Tri-Blenheim with Lathrop Gage; Town Fork Creek with Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner; and Ruskin Heights with Shook Hardy & Bacon.
LINC, which has teamed with Legal Aid, the Kansas City Public Schools and the Kansas City Eviction Project to help stabilize families under housing stress, is looking to connect its Caring Communities sites to the Adopt-A-Neighborhood Project.
On its own, Legal Aid could handle about 15 of these cases at at time, Judah said. With these seven law firm partnerships, they’re handling 80 to 100. And that’s still just a slice of the work that’s needed in a city dealing with thousands of distressed properties.
But the more than 200 total cases and more than 6,000 pro bono hours Adopt-A-Neighborhood accumulated between 2015 and 2018, have made an impact.
Call this a briefcased cavalry that neighborhood association leaders like Whiteside-McCord have been waiting for.
Her neighborhood, for decades a haven of TWA families, has been fighting back against its decay, but grew tired of fruitless calls to the city, futile pursuits of out-of-state landlords and no help from banks “who know nothing,” she said.
She’s the vigilant type that knows her local Kansas City Police Community Interaction Officer’s cell phone — which she called on this recent afternoon with another concern.
And the lawman — Officer Bryan Masterson — promptly arrived, happy to oblige a neighborhood call.
The officers work with the neighborhoods and they collaborate with the Legal Aid teams, Masterson said.
“That’s how we get things done,” the officer said. “We want people to take control of their neighborhoods again.”
‘No Gentrification’ Zone
The Adopt-A-Neighborhood program provides another service: Matchmaker.
Weary of all the ephemeral, negligent investors and the bad houses they leave behind, the residents in these neighborhoods want to know who’s taking on these projects and have some say so over who comes in.
They want someone they can work with, said Legal Aid’s Kayla Hogan, the Adopt-A-Neighborhood Project director.
Ideally, as with Chepulis, the owner becomes a neighbor.
Chepulis, a chaplain who went to school at the nearby Nazarene Theological Seminary, was interested in restoring an old house. NUFA was looking for reliable developers who really cared.
Legal Aid helped them meet.
Chepulis was tired of seeing familiar neighborhoods targeted by far-away real estate opportunists. She loved the “creative outlet” of restoring a home. She had some resources. She had credit to get loans.
“But there was an internal struggle with me,” she said, “wanting to invest without being complicit in gentrification.”
Gentrification happens when investors improve a community’s distressed properties but end up pricing many residents out of the neighborhood if taxes and rents are allowed to rise too high.
By meeting with the NUFA neighborhood leaders, and knowing she would like living on the block, Chepulis was welcomed as a partner in its revival.
Everything the Adopt-A-Neighborhood program does rises out of the hopes and desires of the people who live there, said Legal Aid Executive Director Joe Dandurand.
“This turns the old theory on its head,” he said. The old way involved “people of goodwill who came in and told you what you need. A municipality says, ‘We’re going to clean up this joint. We know what’s best.’ And they do it to you.”
But in the new program, “the neighborhood invests in what they’re doing,” Dandurand said. “We’re there to collaborate.”
Legal Aid also provides other resident services to protect neighborhoods from gentrification, Hogan said. Beneficiary deeds keep properties within families and build generational wealth, and tax abatement applications enable residents to make affordable improvements to their homes.
Tax valuation appeals and tax credit applications also protect residents, she said.
For the kids
Tipton can’t help thinking of the kids in some of these Adopt-A-Neighborhood communities.
He spent 26 years in urban education, the last 11 as principal and superintendent at Hogan Preparatory Academy just a few blocks away from these Broadmoor Road homes.
“I’d take kids home and I’d see what they have to walk past,” he said.
The dust and mold of sick houses that infects the air contributes to the high asthma rates among children in lower-income neighborhoods, and Tipton saw how it drives up absences and hurts student performance.
There’s only so much rehabbers like he and his son, Jeramy Tipton, can do, but the Adopt-A-Neighborhood Project is creating access to properties that would have been impossible to deal with before, he said.
So they keep on, he said, “improving kids’ neighborhoods — one house at a time.”