Among the lovingly restored historic homes of Kansas City’s Southmoreland neighborhood, one house stands out for all the wrong reasons. Sagging balcony, rotting roof, broken windows and screens.
But after the owners were arrested on outstanding housing warrants and brought to court, city officials say they finally got their attention and demolition is now scheduled.
It’s part of an effort to crack down on people with multiple housing violations and get them to start fixing the problem properties. With more than 7,000 outstanding housing warrants, city officials said they needed to take action on a chronic scourge that has frustrated neighborhoods for decades.
“We have to do something with this backlog,” said Mike Schumacher, an assistant to the city manager who is concentrating on demolition efforts and neighborhood nuisances.
That effort began in earnest this summer, aided by the shift at Kansas City’s Municipal Court to store all its data electronically. Schumacher said that allows the court to analyze data in new ways, including producing a list of the offenders with the most warrants. When that list was generated in July, he was shocked at the results. The most warrants weren’t for speeding tickets or other traffic violations.
“I was surprised that 7 out of the 10 people who had the most warrants in the city were housing related,” Schumacher said.
The crackdown, underway for about six weeks, is designed to methodically track down top offenders who fail to appear in court or address the violations.
City officials said they don’t yet have a tally on the number of arrests.
But Southmoreland Neighborhood Association President Greg Corwin said he’s already seen some progress.
“The city has been pretty good” in recent weeks in helping the neighborhood address the worst problems, Corwin said.Owner arrests
For those arrested, it can be a rude awakening.
John Cunningham, who owns the targeted house in Southmoreland with his wife Sue Ann, said they feel railroaded, and that even the police told them their arrest in August for housing warrants was unusual.
He said he could understand if he and his wife were slumlords with bad rental properties all over town, but this has been their home, in the 4100 block of Warwick Boulevard, since the 1970s.
Cunningham said one city inspector had assured them since spring 2011 that they would be given time to fix their property. Then a different inspector from the city manager’s office got involved, and suddenly the couple was given 24 hours in May to vacate the house, which was condemned as a dangerous building.
Since then, Cunningham said, the condition has worsened because the home was vandalized while it was vacant. They were arrested in August on warrants for failure to pay and failure to appear in court, which Cunningham blamed on misunderstandings.
He said both he and his wife are disabled, have financial challenges, and have tried in vain to find financial assistance to restore the house, which dates to the late 1800s. To resolve the warrants, they’ve paid several thousand dollars in fines and will now spend even more to comply with a court order to demolish the house.
“It’s been terrible,” Cunningham said of the court ordeal. “It’s been a nightmare.”
City officials say neighborhood complaints justified the crackdown.
“It’s been an eyesore for years,” said Corwin, who has lived near the home for years.
Next-door neighbor Susan Weis said the Cunninghams neglected the house and just wouldn’t remedy the deterioration. She said the neighborhood association had to pester the city for many months to get the problem addressed.
Both the Cunninghams and their neighbors say they hope someone will buy and save the house, but it would require a sizable investment.
Schumacher said recent arrests illustrate that anyone with outstanding housing warrants might want to get themselves to court promptly. He said it’s also a signal to frustrated residents living next to poorly maintained properties.
“The city is making an effort to track down the property owner who failed to appear in court and hold them accountable,” Schumacher said.
The Cunninghams certainly weren’t the only people arrested this summer for outstanding housing warrants.
Housing Court Prosecutor Vic Peters recalled a recent case in which a man appeared in housing court in jail garb. The judge asked if the man had been picked up on a speeding violation. He responded that, no, he had been watching TV at home when the police came to arrest him for failure to deal with housing violations.
Peters declined to name the offender but said the man paid a fine and fixed the problem.
“We definitely got his attention,” Peters said. “He doesn’t want to go back to jail.”
Another offender who is making an effort to resolve his warrants is Randy Robb, who has designated an attorney to appear in court for him.
Robb, who was out of town and reached by phone, declined to comment except to say that the cases had been resolved and he didn’t see any reason to stir up anything further at this point.
Peters said Robb has recently paid thousands of dollars in fines and is fixing the violations. The most recent of those involved a vacant house in the 9700 block of North Kenwood in an upscale Northland suburb. In the midst of large, well-kept homes and lawns, the property had broken windows, weeds and brush piles, peeling paint, unsightly gutters and eaves and a roof in disrepair, according to the case file.
The house now looks much better, although code enforcement officer Linda Davis said she’s still pursuing a case for weeds and rotting fruit from an apple tree in the front yard.Time will tell
This is not the first time the city has beefed up enforcement against problem properties.
Police have announced housing warrant sweeps with great fanfare in the past, most notably in 2000 and 2002. Each time, the backlog exceeded 3,000 warrants, and each time it got whittled down as police began tracking down property owners with warrants and hauling them to court.
Schumacher said this is intended to be a more sustained effort. But only time will tell whether the city remains committed to this as a priority.
Cheryl Rose, deputy police chief over the patrol bureau, said the city is trying to identify funds to pay officers overtime to really focus on the problem.
But in the meantime, she said, this initiative isn’t detracting from other crime fighting efforts.
“We do occasionally have time for some pro-active assignments,” she said, noting that officers can serve the arrest warrants as part of their regular duties.
“In community meetings, we get a lot of complaints about when a house looks bad,” she said. “If we can help facilitate cleaning up an area, it generally means less calls for service.”
In the past, Kansas City has concentrated on warrants for property owners living within Kansas City. But that meant owners living in the suburbs, especially in Kansas, were untouchable.
Schumacher said Kansas City police now are reaching out to their counterparts in neighboring jurisdictions to serve some of those warrants. Kansas presents a bigger challenge, but Schumacher said police can still reach those offenders if they work in Kansas City or when they visit their properties in Kansas City.
Inspector Linda Davis gave an example of a Kansas City, Kan., woman that was arrested and appeared in court on warrants for a vacant house with numerous violations on Anderson Avenue.
The house was in terrible shape, but the owner is now starting to fix it up.
“It was the arrest,” Davis said. “I’m glad, because it does make a difference.”