An abandoned house stands at the corner of East 66th Terrace and Tracy Avenue. Trash overflows on the front porch. Overgrown weeds consume the yard. The back porch is about to cave in.
Nina Whiteside-McCord has been a homeowner on this block for 23 years. This was the view from her back window every morning. This was the cause of her declining property value. But through Legal Aid of Western Missouri’s Adopt-a-Neighborhood project, Whiteside-McCord was able to make a change.
Adopt-a-Neighborhood is a collaborative project between Legal Aid of Western Missouri, private law firms and east side neighborhoods in Kansas City.
In October 2015 Legal Services Corp., the parent company to Legal Aids around the U.S., donated a two-year $257,000 grant for Legal Aid of Western Missouri’s project. Their goal was to help urban core communities address quality of life concerns by providing professional legal service to qualifying individuals, neighborhood associations and local non-profit organizations that serve the neighborhoods.
Whiteside-McCord is the secretary for Neighbors United for Action, a neighborhood association working to beautify their residential area bounded by Troost Avenue, the Paseo, 63rd Street and Gregory Boulevard. When her organization was paired up with local law firm, Kutak Rock LLP, this abandoned house was her first concern.
“I don’t think people understand what they’re looking at out their front window,” Whiteside-McCord said. “You have a right to make sure that what you wake up and look at is eye pleasing. So when one of my neighbors died on Tracy, that was the view from my backyard.
“This is my neighborhood, this is what I look at when I have coffee, show me what you look at when you have coffee in the morning.”
Kutak Rock is one of six law firms paired up with neighborhoods in the east side area to aid residents with pro bono legal services. Their focus for Neighbors United for Action is revitalizing abandoned homes to encourage economic development.
For a small neighborhood, these vacant homes are a big problem. Kutak Rock and Legal Aid are using Missouri’s Abandoned Housing Act to take properties from absentee owners. The property must be vacant for six months, delinquent on taxes or a nuisance to the community before the firm can file a lawsuit to eventually claim ownership for the neighborhood.
After the neighborhood has claimed title with the help of the law firm, Legal Aid steps in and finds a local resident or company willing to rehabilitate the house. Because the process of title claim and revitalization takes so long, only the house on Tracy Avenue has been completed. But 20 other houses are now undergoing the same procedure.
“I want to see a beautiful craftsman house that is maintained with a family living in it, because those are the people that are going to invest in this neighborhood,” Kutak Rock lawyer Anna Berman said.
“Those are the people that are going to keep property values coming up. Those are the people that are going to keep crime away. They’re going to keep squatters away and keep drugs out of the neighborhood because they’re the ones that are invested and care about their neighborhood. That’s what we’re hoping to see out of every one of these houses.”
Not only does this rehabilitation process help increase property values, it’s inspired neighbors around the area to clean up their own homes, said Legal Aid’s working team of Kayla Hogan, a paralegal, and lawyer Rebecca McQuillen.
“It’s making an effect on the whole block,” Hogan said. “I mean if a house is occupied and the person is paying their property taxes, there’s not a whole lot we can do to say, ‘you need to cleanup your property,’ but to see that they’re taking that initiative themselves just because of the fact that we have come in and started working on the house next door is really cool.”
Another local law firm aiding an urban core neighborhood is Polsinelli PC. It has teamed up with the Key Coalition Neighborhood Association, which ranges from 27th to 35th Street from Woodland and Prospect Avenue.
M2M (Males to Men) Community Foundation is a mentoring group for boys 7-17 years old founded by Dre Taylor within the Key Coalition neighborhood. It was formed to help young men be productive members in the community.
Polsinelli helped the group reach its non-profit status after starting as a corporation. The law firm has also helped the foundation obtain a lease for a house to act as a separate teaching center across the street from an ongoing project the group is working on.
The project is Nile Valley Aquaponics, formed by Taylor in 2015, a tilapia farm and community garden at 29th Street and Wabash that provides for people in Kansas City’s food desert. Aquaponics involves fish and plants growing in the same system. Fish eat bugs and duckweed, while waste from the fish feeds the plants. In turn, the plants and rocks clean the water.
Nile Valley Aquaponics is in the center of the Key Coalition neighborhood and gathers the community as a whole. Whether it be people volunteering, children visiting the goats within the gated area or residents coming to pick some of the free vegetables from the garden, it’s a key attraction.
“The community has watched something grow,” Taylor said “You know, they’ve seen a lot that used to have 18 trees on it where bad things used to happen and now, they see economic development. They’re seeing a traffic of people that wouldn’t necessarily come to 29th and Wabash. They see something positive and are able to say, ‘I remember when.’”
The law firm helped Taylor clear up a dispute between Harrel Johnson Jr., the owner of the land and head of the Kansas City Keys nonprofit. Johnson barred Taylor from the land when he refused to pay the demanded price for it, but Polsinelli was able to help the two reach an accord.
The law firm also helped Taylor through the process of obtaining a patent for his Aquaponics system.
“Although it wasn’t work directly for the neighborhood, we had sort of the biggest green light possible from the neighborhood,” Polsinelli lawyer Brendan McPherson said. “They wanted us to get involved and help Mr. Taylor and his foundation just because it’s such a cool thing that’s going on within the Key Coalition neighborhood right now.”
While these are major projects Kutak Rock and Polsinelli have worked on, the firms, along with four others, help individuals with a wide range of legal services that they wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise.
The other law firms and neighborhood duos include:
▪ Stinson Leonard Street LLP and Marlborough Community Coalition focus on holding landlords accountable for the condition of the properties they rent.
▪ Dentons US LLP and the Wendell Phillips Neighborhood Association focus on Public Safety and Smart Technology — a grass-roots answer to promoting public safety in the urban core.
▪ Husch Blackwell LLP and Historic Manheim Park Neighborhood Association focus on abandoned nuisance properties and tenants’ rights and host regular legal clinics in the neighborhood where walk-ins are welcome.
▪ Lathrop & Gage LLP and Tri-Blenheim Neighborhood Association focus on abandoned nuisance properties and helping the association with their bylaws and filing non-profit status.
With the two-year grant coming to a close in October 2017, McQuillen and Hogan of Legal Aid are confident that they will receive a sustainability grant to keep the Adopt-a-Neighborhood project going. Otherwise, the team and even some of the law firms said they will continue their legal efforts within the urban core neighborhoods on their own.
“Nina said it best. She called the east side of Kansas City the forgotten neighborhood, and I think that in a lot of ways that rings true,” Hogan said. “I think that a lot of people on the east side feel disenfranchised. They do feel forgotten. They feel disempowered.
“To have Legal Aid and these private firms step in and say, ‘we’re here, we care about you and we work for you,’ has been really empowering for them, and it’s also opened our eyes to a lot of projects going on that we didn’t even know about just because we weren’t there.”