Voter voices: A neat and tidy city
Standing at the edge of the ditch she has helped clean up over and over again, a discouraged Brenda Thomas looked at the abandoned tires, the old recliner and the rest of the trash from people who had clearly ignored the small “NO DUMPING” sign.
Thomas is former president of the Marlborough Community Coalition, and a key figure in the grassroots effort to revitalize Marlborough, a collection of five neighborhoods just south of Gregory Boulevard and east of Troost Avenue.
She wants to know what the candidates for mayor are going to do to stop illegal dumping at hot spots like that ditch near Prospect Avenue and Hickman Mills Drive.
“I want to see what these candidates are going to say about keeping this city clean and not it just be one of the buzzwords that they say in their campaign speeches, ‘I’m going to help clean up this city.’” Thomas said. “Well, how are you going to do that? And how are you going to maintain that? And what are you going to do to make that happen?”
Eleven candidates are vying to succeed Sly James as Kansas City mayor, and as the nonpartisan April primary nears, they’ll stake out claims on the issues voters are talking about: affordable housing, economic development incentives, crime and James’ proposal to expand Pre-K.
While priorities differ from Central City to Midtown and Westside to Northland, there’s a common refrain: what is the city doing for my community?
‘The same code violations’
For years, Thomas organized neighborhood cleanups and coordinated with the city to get trash hauled away. The coalition bought two vacant lots and transformed them into quiet green space. She fought to get a fountain at 79th Street and The Paseo turned back on.
What she wants — cleaner neighborhoods and better enforcement of city codes — may not have the allure of issues like the new airport terminal or downtown revitalization. But they’re the key to getting her vote.
In the neighborhoods that comprise Marlborough — Battleflood Heights, Walnut Grove, Marlborough Renaissance, Marlborough Pride and Marlborough East — Thomas said residents have worked with city officials to knock a “huge, huge, huge dent” in the illegal dumping that plagued the community.
But they need more large-item pickups, Thomas said, or another trash disposal site to keep people from tossing items into vacant lots and the streets. Keeping neighborhoods clean is also about community building — opening up new parts of the city to economic development and more affordable housing.
Nancy Phelps, the current president of the Marlborough Community Association, isn’t sure she would “ever think there was enough” attention paid to illegal dumping. She said enforcing city codes against deteriorating houses and businesses was also essential in her neighborhood.
“A lot of us have been reporting the same code violations that don’t seem to be getting resolved, whether it’s the homeowner or an absentee landlord,” Phelps said.
Earlier this month, more than 17 miles across town, where Kansas City narrows and bumps against Gladstone on the west and Claycomo on the east, Jennifer Sheil said her trash pickup, typically on Fridays, never came.
And the rounds of snow and ice that have, at times, shut down the city this winter have made her street impassable.
Sheil said her street is frequently skipped when the plows are out. That makes it difficult for her 90-year-old neighbor’s family to check on him and delays or prevents mail delivery. She said at least twice, the truck has slid into a ditch.
“It’s like the Northland is a forgotten area,” she said.
One paycheck just for rent
Kansas City’s next mayor will take office as calls for more affordable housing grow louder and residents worry that rising home prices are eroding the city’s trademark affordability.
Jennifer Gwinner, a teacher at Northeast Middle School, said it took her about a year to find her two-bedroom apartment near Westport. When she first moved to the area, she lived in Independence, but she wanted to be closer to her students’ community.
She makes $45,000 — about 10 percent less than the city’s median household income of $50,136 — and pays $750 a month, which she said was a deal for the area. It was important to keep her rent low so she can manage her student loans and other bills.
Gwinner said she wants to see the city clearly define goals for affordability at different income levels and pay more attention to residents who make less than she does. She balked at the definition the city set last May that deemed a $1,100 one-bedroom apartment affordable.
“One paycheck for me would just go entirely to my rent, so for someone who’s only bringing home $30,000 a year, there’s no way they could afford that,” said Gwinner, a board member at MORE2, a faith-based grassroots social justice organization.
In Manheim Park, Diane Charity, a retiree and community organizer, pays more than half of her Social Security income on rent.
“My income is $1,290, and I’m paying $666 just for rent, let alone utilities — another $200,” Charity said. “That’s way over the 30 percent.”
Experts say households should pay no more than 30 percent of their gross income for rent or mortgage.
To keep Kansas City affordable, most elected officials and city staff believe they will have to build new units and maintain its aging housing stock.
There’s opportunity for the latter in the city’s historic northeast, said Bryan Stalder, president of the Indian Mound Neighborhood Association. But he’s worried rising rents in pricier neighborhoods could push residents into Indian Mound and drive up prices there.
“When people can’t afford a house in another part of the city, they’re looking here and they’re coming here for the price of the home as opposed to they want to live here,” Stalder said.
Two hours to work by bus
No one issue occupies its own silo. Each is woven into the other. Making Kansas City more affordable also requires better access to transit, said Wesley Reed, an organizer with the Service Employees International Union. Transportation, he said, can be a challenge for SEIU members.
“The housing (that) is affordable is so far out that they can’t connect to the things that they need,” he said.
David Vickers, who lives at Broadway Boulevard and Armour Road, said he wanted the new administration to focus on improving transit access so residents can get around without cars.
“I think that car dependence is...holding several neighborhoods back,” Vickers said.
Vickers said he rides the bus from time to time to go downtown or to the plaza. He tried taking it to work for about a week, but spent nearly two hours getting from his Midtown apartment to his job as a technology consultant at Cerner in South Kansas City.
Marlborough has benefited significantly from investment in green infrastructure and storm drainage systems, Phelps said, but much of the community doesn’t have curbs or gutters. She said she wanted to see continued partnership with the city on infrastructure.
Dave King, who lives in the Sherwood Estates neighborhood, said he doesn’t think the Northland is getting its fair shake when it comes to infrastructure money.
“We bring a shovel-ready project to the table and get it hijacked by a project south of the river, and it’s just happened over and over and over again,” King said.
He pointed to a long-awaited fire station finally under construction near Interstate 435 and Missouri 291. Kansas City bought several houses along a stretch of North Brighton Avenue with the intent of widening the road, but that still hasn’t happened.
More groceries, less fast food and liquor
Residents are growing weary of what they see as the city’s willingness to grant major tax incentives for development while routinely cutting back basic services.
“I mean, we had to pass bonds for the city to do its normal job,” said Megan Rodenberg, a civil engineer who lives near the Ward Parkway Shopping Center, who added that tax rates are getting “ridiculous.”
“Every time a tax increase is put on the ballot, it just makes me groan because we give all these tax incentives,” Rodenberg said.
Residents outside the Downtown-Midtown-Plaza corridor wonder why their neighborhood isn’t getting the same level of attention. Clinton Adams, an attorney and East Side activist, said it doesn’t make sense for Kansas City to subsidize projects in “already thriving areas.”
“You should be able to do more than buy fast food and liquor in the 3rd District neighborhoods,” Adams said.
Thomas wants a grocery store in Marlborough and is tired of hearing the neighborhood doesn’t have the economic base to support one.
“That’s BS. That’s just pure BS,” she said, “because people — I don’t care if they ride the bus or if they have cars — they go and get groceries somewhere.” Among the less-than-convenient options for her community are Ward Parkway Shopping Center, the Price Chopper at 85th Street and Wornall Road and the Aldi at 75th and Wornall.
In the Northland, King said residents don’t feel like they have adequate representation on boards and commissions that make recommendations to the City Council on development projects. He said builders can win approval without any neighborhood support.
“All you have to do is drive Chouteau, Vivion Road, North Oak...and North Brighton and look at the number of used car lots, and we’ve fought every single one of them,” King said.
Michael Carmona, who grew up on the Westside and now lives in Hyde Park, works for the Hispanic Economic Development Corporation. He said Kansas City should look at doing more grassroots-led development and grow “organically.”
“Kansas City has become real popular, but I also don’t think we need outside developers to constantly come in asking for incentives,” Carmona said.
‘Where do you send your kids?’
Kansas City schools are traditionally regarded as the responsibility of school boards and state lawmakers, but they are at the center of city politics this year with James’ proposed 3/8-cent sales tax increase to broaden access to Pre-K.
Gwinner, a public school teacher, opposes James’ plan, in part because the funds pay for Pre-K programs at both public and private schools.
She and Lora McDonald, executive director of MORE2, contend that public schools could be providing more Pre-K programming if the city weren’t abating property taxes for developers through incentives like tax-increment financing.
Also known as TIF, it allows developers to capture some or all of the additional sales, property and earnings taxes generated by new construction. The idea is to encourage development in under-served areas where projects wouldn’t otherwise be financially feasible.
“If we were TIF-ing right and TIF-ing in blighted areas and for shorter periods of time and not at that 100 percent our school district would already have more money to do these kinds of things themselves,” McDonald said.
Stalder said it’s time that the city strengthens its partnership with the school districts. Education is usually the most important to young families like the ones moving into Indian Mound.
“So they’re always asking where do you send your kids to school?” he said.
‘No one was calling the police’
The Westside has changed since Ezekiel Amador III was growing up there in the 1970s and 80s. As a kid, he didn’t fully understand the dangers of the neighborhood.
“It’s much, much safer now,” he said.
Now, you can walk from one end of the neighborhood to the other, he said. And when crime does happen, it gets reported. There’s a relationship with the police.
It took years of community policing to build that trust, he said. Now, the neighborhood has a police officer stationed at its Community Action Network, or CAN, Center.
Officers attend back-to-school events at the neighborhood library and dress up as Santa to hand out Christmas presents. Partnerships between the community and the city also brought parks, a library branch and a community center to the Westside.
“Those relationships don’t come easy and they don’t come fast,” said Amador, a database administrator.
He wants the new mayoral administration to continue prioritizing that work.
“In the beginning there was no crime because no one was calling the police,” Amador said. “Then...there was engagement. There was trust, and there was some relationship and some partnership building. Then the calls for service went up, and then they went down again because there was some success.”
The same is happening in Marlborough. A Kansas City police officer was at the community coalition’s meeting last month to talk to residents and stay up to date on what’s going on in the neighborhood.
Adams wants better performance from the police department.
“We have to find some way to pare down these violent murders,” he said.
The mayoral candidates differ on how they suggest deterring violent crime, but there’s only so much the city can do. The police department is governed by an oversight panel appointed by the Missouri governor.
McDonald thinks bringing the police under direct city control would help.
“For us, it’s really about the people on the board of police commissioners having actual power.”
At its core, the call for better city services, more grassroots-driven development and action on affordable housing shows voters’ desire to see City Hall focus on the issues important to their neighborhoods.
Thomas said she felt like James took a neighborhood-level approach and helped kick-start strong partnerships with Marlborough, including the green infrastructure upgrades the neighborhood got. And the work he did on revitalizing downtown, she said, was needed.
“When I left, downtown was nothing,” Thomas said. “Whenever you would come and visit back in the city, you didn’t go downtown. I mean what was down there but a bunch of old dusty buildings and that’s about it?”
But she would have liked more sustained attention on her neighborhood. There’s still work left to do.
“We only got the first start with him.”