Police Chief Darryl Forté is right: Kansas City needs to tear down more vacant buildings because of the problems they create for his officers as well as residents in beleaguered neighborhoods.
Police must respond to citizens’ complaints about drug deals, prostitution and other crimes in and near vacant houses. Meanwhile, blight caused by the structures depresses the value of nearby occupied homes.
The chief’s remarks touched off an age-old debate among people who’d rather rehabilitate structures vs. those who say it’s time to tear them down.
Actually, it’s possible to tackle both priorities in thoughtful ways.
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City Manager Troy Schulte said dangerous houses should be torn down while some of the city’s 7,000 vacant ones “will remain and can be fixed.”
But where’s the money to come from to tackle these two priorities?
The city’s dangerous buildings list contains more than 800 structures, including old commercial ones. The bill to take them all down would top $10 million, more than six times what’s been spent annually on this cause in the last few years. The city also spends $1 million a year or so on minor home repairs, also a sliver of what’s truly needed.
Forté offered at a police board meeting to pull back on a part of his request for funds to hire up to 60 more officers in the coming year’s budget, theoretically freeing up some money for demolition.
However, city officials have not yet embraced Forté’s call for more officers. And as we noted recently, a study should be made to determine the proper size of Police Department staffing. That partly means looking at how many officers are assigned to desk jobs vs. officers assigned to the street.
The city’s general fund is another potential source of funds for tearing down and repairing vacant houses.
This month, the City Council directed Schulte to look into how the city could pay for up to $18 million of improvements in the 18th and Vine area, aimed at boosting economic development.
The city manager could expand the scope of that work to include a funding proposal for improving housing near 18th and Vine. More broadly, he also could develop a companion or even a competing plan that would fast-track the demolition of all dangerous buildings and carve out some funds for renovating houses in East Side neighborhoods.
City officials for too many years have not directed ample financial resources toward these daunting problems. Yet they have invested hundreds of millions in public dollars into projects needed to help revive downtown, the Crossroads Arts District, the Country Club Plaza and even parts of the Northland.
John Wood, director of the city’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department, pointed out Thursday that developers and banks have been far more active in those projects. Tackling the East Side’s troubles are financially riskier, to be sure.
Forté has sparked a worthwhile conversation about what the city could do to help push forth a revival of the East Side, which Mayor Sly James has said will be a priority of his second term.
James, along with council members, must seize the opportunity to find solid ways to level dangerous and vacant buildings, while also pouring public funds into bringing new life to old structures worth saving.