Independence Plaza neighborhood leader Tom Ribera sometimes has trouble tracking down the absentee owners of nuisance rental properties in Kansas City’s Northeast area.
But it was easy to find Helen Collins, the out-of-state owner of two Prospect Avenue apartment buildings that have been a big neighborhood headache.
All he had to do was Google her.
She has drawn headlines as a Colorado Springs, Colo., city councilwoman who is the subject of an ethics investigation in her own city.
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“These owners come from all walks of life,” Ribera said.
While the owner’s notoriety may be unusual, the saga with this Kansas City property is all too common. It’s a case study, city officials say, of all the challenges from out-of-town landlords in the urban core, leading to many of the 7,000 vacant structures in the city.
That has fostered a story of rental buildings that fall into disrepair and don’t get attention despite repeated warnings and citations from code inspectors. Unpaid property taxes and water bills. Lack of rental property registration or responsible management, eventually leading to boarded-up buildings and tenants being removed. And it’s difficult for the city to legally pursue people out of state and get the problems resolved.
Ribera is a contractor who restores abandoned houses in the Northeast area and resells them to buyers who want vintage homes with modern updates.
But as president of the Independence Plaza Neighborhood Council, he also spends much time dealing with rental blight in the neighborhood, which stretches from Independence Avenue south to Interstate 70 and from the Paseo until Ninth Street and then along Brooklyn Avenue on the west side to Benton Boulevard on the east side.
Over the past year, he and others complained to police and code inspectors about two dilapidated apartment buildings at 10th Street and Prospect Avenue, each with about six units, that were magnets for drug deals and vagrants. The city ordered the buildings vacated earlier this month.
Ribera said police addressed the drug deals and traced the buildings to a business manager named Douglas Bruce from Colorado Springs. But the properties, which sit next to a nice park and not far from well-maintained, single-family homes, remained an eyesore and a menace.
So in March, Ribera finally looked up the owner through Jackson County property records, plugged the name Helen Collins into an Internet search and found that she and Bruce, her business partner, are embroiled in quite a controversy in Colorado Springs.
According to The Gazette of Colorado Springs, Collins, a first-term councilwoman, just survived an April 7 recall election from opponents who said she wasn’t representing their issues and was too closely tied to Bruce.
Bruce is a former Colorado legislator who is author of the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights but who in December 2011 was convicted on state charges of tax evasion, filing a false return and attempting to influence a public servant. He served 103 days in jail and was released.
Also according to the Gazette, Collins is in the middle of a Colorado Springs ethics investigation that says she participated in a local real estate deal with Bruce that helped him avoid paying a court judgment. She has told the newspaper the investigation is without merit.
Ribera wrote to Collins on March 16 about the problems with her Kansas City buildings, offering the neighborhood’s help to find a responsible manager or buyer. Ribera said he didn’t hear back from her. Instead, Bruce called him, and Ribera said Bruce complained that he hadn’t been able to find a property manager and hadn’t collected rents in more than a year.
Ribera offered in an email to work with him and Kansas City property maintenance officials to get the buildings cleaned up. Bruce then emailed that city involvement would be an unwelcome move. While Ribera insisted the city could be a helpful partner, Bruce disagreed and hasn’t been in contact since late March.
Collins did not respond to phone and email messages from The Star and has declined to comment to The Gazette about the Kansas City situation.
Bruce declined to comment by telephone to The Star except to say, “I have no desire to talk to you. You’ve got a bee in your bonnet about something totally stupid. Go bug somebody else.” Then he hung up.
Ribera doesn’t know how Collins came to buy the Kansas City apartments. Jackson County records show someone bought them for $100,000 in 2011 but then defaulted. Collins bought them from Deutsche Bank National Trust in November 2012 for an undisclosed price. The parcel containing the buildings has one year of overdue property taxes totaling more than $1,800.
Ribera said that frequently investors from Colorado, California and other states are attracted to Kansas City’s cheap real estate prices, hoping to make easy rental money, but they don’t realize the downside.
The property gets vandalized, code violations mount up, people stop paying rent and the financial gain evaporates. Sometimes owners just abandon all involvement.
John Wood, Kansas City’s director of neighborhoods and housing services, agrees that Kansas City is seen as a “mecca of low-cost real estate.”
He wants stronger state legislation to bolster the requirement that investors in limited liability corporations, which often include out-of-town owners, have a local representative responsible for upkeep on these properties so they don’t fall into such disrepair.
Ribera said there’s a “tipping point” where a property can still be saved affordably before it has to be demolished, and Collins’ buildings may be right there.
While the buildings have broken windows visible, Ribera said they also need plumbing, electrical and other work. But the city’s property maintenance division has cited them for exterior violations of peeling paint, trash, weeds and lack of rental registration. Collins was fined $100 in an administrative process that the city uses for out-of-town owners. It was unpaid by the due date of March 12, doubling the fine to $200.
Dalena Taylor, the city’s neighborhood preservation manager, said that such fines are too small to get an owner’s attention and that the city needs a better way to collect penalties across state lines.
“The laws need to be changed, for one, with stiffer penalties on the owners,” she said.
The buildings were occupied until right after Easter, but they have now been vacated and boarded up because of overdue water bills totaling more than $20,000. The account was in Bruce’s name, but Water Services chief financial officer Sean Hennessy said Collins would also be liable.
Hennessy said that the level of overdue bill warranted shutting off the water and that the department has put a lien on the property in hopes of someday being paid back.
He doesn’t have exact figures but said that, anecdotally, over the past four years it has seemed as if more of the department’s unpaid bills trace to investors from places such as Colorado and California. To pursue a court case out of town is difficult, he said, because it’s hard to serve absentee landlords with the legal papers that obligate them to respond. Even when they do get a court order, he said, it’s difficult to enforce and get repayment.
Geraldine Romero is one of the tenants who had to move right after Easter. While Bruce told Ribera he hadn’t received rent money in more than a year, Romero said she paid $450 cash every month for a year to a man named Dan. She said he stopped coming at the end of last year and she didn’t know where to send the rent after that.
She had to leave behind her stove, furniture and some other belongings because city officials gave only a few days’ notice before they vacated the building. She is staying with a friend while she tries to find another affordable place to live.
Ribera said the best hope for the buildings is to find a responsible property manager or buyer who can restore them and get them reopened. He thinks he might have some investors interested, but he needs Bruce and Collins to work with him.
“He (Bruce) needs to engage with local people here,” Ribera said. “You can’t manage the property from 600 miles away.”