The rundown house on a secluded Kansas City street near Interstate 70 was overflowing with trash and weeds, burned by a meth fire and boarded up three years ago by the city.
But to Laurie Schwab, a 47-year-old Lee’s Summit musician with no real contracting experience, it looked like hope and opportunity.
“This has been a dream of mine since I was 18,” she said of her aspiration to restore an abandoned house. “Taking something ugly and making it beautiful.”
The Kansas City Land Bank’s Dollar Home Sale program is giving her that chance. Under the program, the Land Bank sold the houses for $1, but authorized buyers had to prove they had at least $8,500 for repairs. They were also warned that the houses would need up to $40,000 of investment to be livable.
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Schwab was among 31 intrepid buyers participating in the pilot project to try to reclaim the worst of the worst vacant Land Bank houses, according to executive director Ted Anderson. His job is to market and sell last-resort properties that failed to sell on the courthouse step. He’s not aware of any other Land Bank program in the country selling homes so cheaply.
“In different places, houses are worth more,” he observed. “They’re worth less here than they are in most places.”
As Kansas City confronts the problem of thousands of dangerous and falling-down houses, city officials in February announced a two-year, $10 million program to tear down 800 eyesores that were a plague on neighborhoods. So far, 179 demolition contracts have been awarded.
But along with that demolition effort, city officials promoted the dollar house program to try to save some of these Land Bank properties from the wrecking ball.
In late February, Anderson identified 135 urban core houses as potentially salvageable, although some knowledgeable rehabbers scoffed and said none of them was worth saving. They needed massive repairs including new siding, windows, roofs, plumbing, electrical, heating, cooling and other features.
Despite these dire conditions, the dollar house program drew a flood of inquiries — about 6,000 — but only 82 complete applications for 49 houses. The board approved 45 applicants, although 14 of those didn’t follow through. So 31 “survivors” in the program began chugging away. Some of those may still drop out, but most are in it for good, aiming for completion by next autumn.
“It’s really challenging,” Anderson acknowledged. “But very fulfilling. I think these folks are going to end up with a paid-off house shortly after a year. There are not many people who could say that.”
Those who succeed will get an $8,500 rebate — since they’re saving the city that demolition cost.
Some buyers had the necessary construction background, but most did not. Some people grew up on the block where they bought. A few were from the suburbs, while others came from as far away as South Dakota and Maryland.
Talk about “sweat equity.” These projects have already meant months of hard work, consuming days off from regular jobs and weekends. First came the disposal of tons of garbage both inside and out. Next, buyers had to rip out the rot and get exteriors ready for winter. They’ve just begun to address gutted interiors, which likely will take eight more months to finish. But it’s a chance to learn valuable home-building skills, while turning trash into treasure.
Sanctuary for homeless
Schwab first fell in love with stately but abandoned houses on Benton Boulevard when she was a student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. But she studied piano and organ and became an accompanist at Summit Christian Academy in Lee’s Summit. While she could swing a hammer and paintbrush, she never pursued any big restoration projects.
She also became an advocate for the homeless and in 2012 formed a nonprofit called One by One Ministries (1by1kc.org) to provide support services to people living on the streets.
So when Schwab read about the dollar house program last February, she thought this might be a way to get a house that could provide affordable shelter for a few people transitioning from homelessness.
She looked at 15 or 20 of the Land Bank’s prospective homes but came close to quitting. Most had caved-in roofs, foundation problems and were just too horrible. One Sunday in March as she was about to give up, she visited a house built in 1951 near 29th Street and Van Brunt Boulevard. It was in bad shape but had a strong foundation, nice-sized backyard and woods nearby. It was just blocks from very blighted streets but had its own buffer of solitude.
She put in an application and was shocked when she was approved.
“I was just floored and giddy,” she said.
Her husband thought it a risky venture, but her 13-year-old son was enthusiastic.
It wasn’t a Benton Boulevard landmark, but she actually saw this as something more accessible. And since work began in July, she’s never felt it wasn’t doable. That’s partly because she’s had great help.
Kelly Singleton met Schwab a few years ago while he was struggling with alcohol, drugs and living on the streets. With her help, he’s gotten his life together and has repaid the favor by putting his extensive construction abilities to use at the dollar house. He’s helped Schwab install windows, replace siding, patch the roof and start to restore the fire-damaged interior.
Remembering how the house was virtually encased by vegetation this summer, Singleton says the job has been harder than he imagined. But he is proud of how far they’ve come.
“Compared to what it was, it’s a mansion now,” he said. “This was worth saving.”
Schwab says maybe a dozen people, mostly contacts through her nonprofit, have volunteered invaluable help with cleanup and other chores. By scrounging for free materials and good deals, she’s spent about $7,000 so far and expects to spend maybe $30,000.
Despite some banged-up thumbs from a hammer and a bad bruise when her leg went through a rotted floor, Schwab is enjoying the project. “It’s a labor of love,” she said.
Jenna Squires, 28, a former Navy linguist and urban planning student, saw the possibilities in the 1920s house with a collapsing front porch, rotting gutters and wrecked interior not far from Linwood Boulevard and Prospect Avenue.
“I knew I wanted to plant my roots here,” she said of the neighborhood a few miles from downtown.
Squires moved to Kansas City from St. Joseph more than a year ago and lived on the west side. With a passion for sustainable community development, she was taking urban planning classes at UMKC toward a master’s degree in historic preservation.
From her military background and current job with a hardscape company, she has knowledge in electrical, plumbing, drywalling and other skills.
She heard about the dollar house from friends in February and was intrigued.
“The offer was too good to pass up,” she said, recalling how she spent Valentine’s Day looking at maybe a dozen properties. She chose one with oak floors, a nice sized dining room, living room and bedrooms.
But the previous owner had died years ago while in the midst of a restoration project that was far from finished. Squatters had left a huge mess. She admits to feeling overwhelmed at first, as she filled a giant dumpster with more than 3 tons of garbage, including 100 pounds of glass from the front yard. She quit school for a semester to tackle the task. Finally, after she recently installed a sink in the upstairs bathroom and could wash her hands, her doubts also started to wash away.
It’s especially gratifying that she’s seeing others in the neighborhood fixing their own homes as they see progress on her home.
She’s had some help, including a friend who installed a high-efficiency furnace, but it’s mostly been her own initiative and determination. She expects to invest a total of about $20,000 and hopes to live there at least five years. She relishes living without a mountain of mortgage debt.
“That freedom is very liberating,” she said.
As for the program itself, Squires said the Land Bank should learn from these pioneering experiences.
“I feel it’s a phenomenal idea in theory,” she said of the dollar house program. “But in practice, they have to make it more accessible to people.”
Meaning not many people can take on this level of restoration.
Anderson agrees and said he’s exploring a new phase of the program.
“Most of the feedback we got was that people love the idea of the sale, and they’d like to see us do it again,” he said. “They’d be willing to spend more money for nicer houses.”
He’s looking at houses that might sell for something like $3,000, and hopes to put a new sale together early next year.
In the meantime, the Land Bank sells about 34 houses per month, most for less than $40,000, including work investment. So people may make a $40,000 offer but pay the Land Bank $5,000 and do $35,000 worth of work.
The dollar house program, Anderson said, has been a valuable lesson in what the average person can do with a colossal fixer-upper.
“Some have contracting experience, but a lot were just folks that wanted a house, and we’d much rather see someone in the house than have to tear it down,” he said. “We’re strongly cheering for these folks.”