Two years after ‘worst of the worst’ houses sold for $1, here are the livable ones

See the before-and-after transformation of two KC dollar houses

Two years ago, Kansas City’s Land Bank sold 31 houses on the city's dangerous building list for $1 each to local buyers. Here are two that have been transformed.
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Two years ago, Kansas City’s Land Bank sold 31 houses on the city's dangerous building list for $1 each to local buyers. Here are two that have been transformed.

One Sunday in February 2016, Jenna Squires browsed some of Kansas City’s most blighted areas in search of a home she could buy for a buck.

The city had floated a one-time offer: one dollar. For one house. Just revive the wreck and make it a home.

Somehow, Squires and at least 18 other committed Kansas Citians have done so, often in amazing fashion.

In contrast to their achievement, a dozen other properties in the Kansas City Land Bank’s “dollar house” experiment still languish in disrepair.

The 2016 dollar-house promotion created a community stir. Thousands of area residents inquired with the city. Yet even if the program were a smashing success — and local officials today say they’re happy with the results — all understood it would be just a speck of renewal in a city pockmarked by 20,000 abandoned houses.

Of more than 100 houses that the city deemed salvageable enough to sell for $1, fewer than 50 could be matched with suitors willing and financially able to renovate the buildings to code.

In the end, only 31 dollar homes sold. The bargain may have seemed a no-brainer for buyers with the skills and tools to repair a place.

Until you consider what they had to repair.

What Squires found on the 3300 block of Monroe Avenue resembled most of the other abandoned and dangerous buildings that the city included in the program: “The worst of the worst,” as the Land Bank’s Chad Erpelding put it.

The roof above the front porch had sunk into a V-shape that Squires — a Navy veteran who felt comfortable in submarines — wouldn’t dare venture under. Though most of the windows were boarded, an exterior door leading to the basement was wide open.

Human feces covered the floor upon which Squires has since fashioned a dining room.

“Definitely, this place was very squatted,” she said, referring to the many transients who took shelter in the once-stately house built in 1921.

Jenna Squires didn’t have a kitchen in her dollar house until probably seven months ago. Shelly Yang syang@kcstar.com

Home buyers of all kinds know that moment during a walk-through when a certain feature grabs them — a kitchen island, for example.

For Squires, it was a small jack on an outside wall that indicated the house was ready to be wired for Google ultra-speed fiber.

Go figure. When Google Fiber came through the neighborhood some years back to provide gigabit service to homes, cable installers hooked up vacant, broken-down dumps, too.

Squires, 30, recognized: “With the internet and YouTube, you can fix anything!”

Rules and rebate

Kansas City’s dollar-house program drew some 6,000 inquiries about properties so ramshackle that an initial batch of 140 buildings considered salvageable could only muster 49 applications.

The board of the Land Bank — which takes control of abandoned properties that don’t find buyers on the courthouse steps — approved 45 applicants for the dollar houses. Fourteen of those bidders never followed through.

For the 31 that sold, the Land Bank required:

that buyers be local;

that they prove they have their own financial resources to restore homes to a condition that frees the structures from the city’s list of dangerous buildings;

that property taxes be paid from Day 1 of the purchase;

and that somebody (preferably the owner) would someday live in the house, adding vitality to a neighborhood.

If all agreements were met, the buyer would ultimately receive an $8,500 rebate from the publicly held Land Bank. That is roughly what the city would spend to tear down a dangerous building.

One other thing: “We couldn’t do anything to help them” after the purchases were closed, said the Land Bank’s operations manager, Michael Patillo.

The Kansas City Star

“We’re not getting in the middle of problems between buyers and the contractors,” he said. “If buyers ask (for recommended builders), we tell them to Google contractors.”

In some cases, buyers bailed out of their promises. And it wasn’t always a simple matter of reneging, said Patillo.

People financially able to delve into the program in April 2016, when applications were due, experienced life events that made it impossible to pour tens of thousands of dollars into bringing houses up to code.

Some lost their day jobs. Or lost partners who had agreed to help with the renovations. A few hired contractors who stopped showing up before work was complete.

A woman who bought a dollar house on the 4100 block of Chestnut Avenue fell ill and spent several weeks in the hospital. Her still-dilapidated structure likely will be forfeited back to the city for demolition.

The Land Bank held deeds of trust on all 31 dollar houses purchased, allowing it to reclaim property where progress hasn’t been made. Today, 12 of the houses have yet to qualify for the city’s $8,500 rebate. Most of those houses likely will return to city hands for eventual removal, which could be years down the road.

But demolition won’t be necessary for a four-bedroom house on the 5800 block of East 27th Terrace, a winding, wooded road that dead ends at Interstate 70.

Laurie Schwab purchased her house for $1 from city Land Bank in 2016. Now named the “Red Door Refuge”, Schwab plans to use the four-bedroom house as a transitional place for the homeless. Shelly Yang syang@kcstar.com

Laurie Schwab, a Lee’s Summit pianist and activist for the homeless, bought that dollar house. She cleared the weeds and restored the building’s exterior to something just short of miraculous, with new siding, an arched window and cedar-lined porch that leads to a red door.

After spending $26,000 — and that’s not counting two years of labor performed by herself and many friends, some homeless — Schwab hopes to open the home this fall as the “Red Door Refuge,” offering transitional housing for up to four folks at a time who need shelter before getting their lives right.

Providing a place for the homeless — “that’s always been a dream of mine,” said Schwab. Rolling up her sleeves to revive a run-down dive has been a dream, too, “ever since I was a teenager...

“When the dollar-house program came up, it offered me both of those things.”

Saving the houses

A residence near 57th and Olive streets stands as an enduring testament to what you can buy for $1 and convert into a home.

The A-frame with the white picket fence owes its existence to a dollar-house campaign that the city pitched in the 1970s.

The house was purchased back then by a cousin of Patillo’s, decades before he joined the newly formed Land Bank in 2013.

His cousin Eula lived there until she died recently at age 85.

“I remember a lot of Thanksgiving dinners over there,” Patillo said. “A house bought for a dollar. I thought it was so cool.”

In 2018 a similar success story is unfolding on the 2900 block of Indiana Avenue, home of Retha and Archie Jackson.

Retha grew up just down the road, a preacher’s kid. Her mother resided in the neighborhood until she died 13 years ago. So Retha and her construction-worker husband had grown a bit too familiar with the eyesore that Kansas City slapped on the open market for a dollar.

Actually, it had been years since they saw the house itself. It was hidden behind a mini-forest of junk trees and weeds.

Neighbors pitched in to help Retha and Archie chop down the brush, and “it was like, hey, there’s a real house back here,” Retha said.

Slowly, the house is becoming a home for the Jacksons. It still needs interior work (these dollar houses will always need work). But the Land Bank cut the committed couple the $8,500 rebate check knowing that city-funded demolition wouldn’t be necessary and the money would help them finish the job.

Retha and Archie have helped repair dozens of dilapidated houses. She’s a professional painter. Archie “can fix just about anything,” she says, and much of the assistance they provide comes at no charge. It’s part of a preacher kid’s dedication to helping those in need through her nonprofit, Community Project Focus.

“We’ve been putting other people’s needs before our own,” said Retha. While her dollar house is for now cluttered with construction supplies, it’s livable and no longer on the city’s dangerous buildings list.

A $3,500 resurrection

On Monroe Avenue, Navy veteran Squires has interior walls that need painting and, above the dining room table, an original chandelier that needs wiring.

But the major work is behind her — the removal of three tons of garbage, the replacement of gutters, the introduction of a kitchen, a heating and cooling system, and a colorfully tiled upstairs bathroom she crafted from nothing.

Jenna Squires did almost all of on her own work at her house. She also bartered for services. Shelly Yang syang@kcstar.com

A historic preservation buff, computer whiz (she works for a Lenexa company building drones) and former construction professional, Squires is responsible for almost all of the work on the house’s resurrection.

She bartered for supplies, offering to provide her software expertise to the furnace installer, for instance, and relied on the internet to tackle projects beyond her grasp.

Total out-of-pocket renovation cost: about $12,000.

If you discount the $8,500 rebate she received last year from the city, Squires’ home was risen from the dead for a net $3,500.

And that’s less than what Squires paid to have professionals replace the roof.

Jenna Squires’ renovated kitchen is a combination of “inherited” and new items. Shelly Yang syang@kcstar.com

But nothing has been easy, as every repair has led her to discover further repairs needed.

“It’s one step forward and two steps back,” she said. “But the better this place gets, the more I know it’s been worth it.”

Especially as she sees neighbors fixing up their houses, too. That’s what a speck of renewal can do.

The future refuge

When Laurie Schwab bought her dollar home, its living room had a caved-in floor. Shelly Yang syang@kcstar.com

When The Star visited Schwab in the fall of 2016, her work on the East 29th Terrace house had just begun.

For her it was love at first sight, despite the living room with a caved-in floor.

A fire years earlier, likely caused by squatters, had spread from the basement up through the first floor. Firefighters punched a hole in the roof to douse it.

Yet Schwab was optimistic about her $1 startup.

“You’re taking something ugly and making it beautiful,” she said at the time.

Beautification would mean hauling and stacking hundreds of carved stones, each weighing 87 pounds, to shore up the plunging grade off the porch.

Recently in the nearly finished living room, Schwab threw back her head and laughed: “It’s really not just a dollar.”

Many dollar-home buyers were warned by the city that renovations could cost $30,000 to $40,000. (“We low-balled them,” said Patillo.)

Schwab’s project is being completed for less thanks to a cadre of skilled volunteers familiar with her leadership in One By One Ministries, a nonprofit service organization.

“They kind of saved me,” said friend and helper Tom Devine, an electrician and recovering drug addict six years clean. Now he wants to help save others. “I’m kind of paying it forward.”

In April, the city chose Schwab’s dollar house for a celebration marking two years of the program’s one-and-done promotion.

With local officials in attendance, Schwab cornered Mayor Sly James and others about her ongoing battle with the city to access a water main. Soon after the ceremony, water was flowing at the future Red Door Refuge.

In a gesture of appreciation for Schwab’s hard work, City Manager Troy Schulte dipped into his own wallet.

“He gave me my dollar back!” she said. “I didn’t even ask for it.”