Government & Politics

Land Bank: seeking productive uses for countless “ugly duckling” properties

Fresh Coast Capital co-founder April Mendez (center, facing camera) discussed with urban core resident Leaven Fountain (right) on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015, the possibility of turning the vacant lot, pictured in the background, at 18th Street at Cypress Avenue in Kansas City into a tree-filled landscape. Behind Mendez and Fountain are Land Bank Executive Director Ted Anderson (right), who is teaming with Mendez to try to plant trees in vacant neglected lots, and Kimiko Gilmore, Assistant City Manager for Kansas City.
Fresh Coast Capital co-founder April Mendez (center, facing camera) discussed with urban core resident Leaven Fountain (right) on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015, the possibility of turning the vacant lot, pictured in the background, at 18th Street at Cypress Avenue in Kansas City into a tree-filled landscape. Behind Mendez and Fountain are Land Bank Executive Director Ted Anderson (right), who is teaming with Mendez to try to plant trees in vacant neglected lots, and Kimiko Gilmore, Assistant City Manager for Kansas City. along@kcstar.com

As Kansas City copes with thousands of abandoned, eyesore properties in the aftermath of the Great Recession, it’s looking beyond trying to fill them with new houses and residents.

One idea: mini forests of poplar trees that can beautify the land and eventually be harvested for cash.

“It really looks cool,” said Ted Anderson, executive director of Kansas City’s Land Bank, the city agency responsible for the tax-foreclosed properties that fail to sell on the courthouse steps and have been abandoned by previous owners.

“All of our properties are ugly duckings in one way or another,” Anderson said, as the Land Bank enters its third year as the city’s landowner of last resort.

Lindsay Hicks, development and outreach director for Habitat for Humanity in Kansas City, is working with Land Bank to help process homes that will be restored for families in need of residence. VIDEO BY Joe Ledford/jledford@kcstar.com

So Anderson and his board are trying to turn those ugly ducklings into swans, using a variety of approaches: Habitat for Humanity Kansas City restoring 100-year-old homes rather than just building new. Next-door-neighbors adopting tiny lots. And a start-up company replacing weed-choked land with farms of fast-growing trees for wood products and other cash crops.

“We have to be creative because we have such a large number of properties that not everyone wants to buy,” said Land Bank Board Chair Jennifer Dameron.

The Land Bank opened for business in July 2013 with a mission of trying to sell more that 3,600 properties then on the books— about 800 structures and 2,400 vacant lots . The properties were inherited from a previous agency, the Jackson County Land Trust, after the ravages of the recession and the foreclosure crisis.

Even as the Land Bank has disposed of about 400 properties, its inventory has grown to more than 4,200 (3,100 vacant lots and about 1,000 structures), as it adds more foreclosures each year than it sells.

Still, Anderson and Dameron say the agency is starting to stem the inventory growth and speed up the sales pace to about 40 per month, while these new strategies kick in.

It’s a combination of getting more structures occupied, with help from Habitat and other buyers who can do economical rehabs, plus replacing vacant parcels with orchards or cash crops, Anderson said.

“We realized that housing is not the sole answer,” Anderson said. “There’s not a demand. There’s a gap between what you can build a house for and what you can sell it for in the inner city.”

New approaches

Among the most promising strategies now in place or in process:

▪  Habitat: The Land Bank house on the southwest corner of 30th Street and Highland Avenue is so choked with vegetation that it’s hard to see the structure. It’s an ugly view for the three tidy, occupied homes that Habitat for Humanity built about 10 years ago right across the street.

The organization plans to acquire that home and two other Land Bank houses on the block, all built in 1907, renovate them and fill them with new homeowners next year.

“While traditionally we have built new houses, in the past three years we’ve really been focusing on rehab as well,” said Lindsay Hicks, Habitat’s development and outreach manager.

Habitat can acquire these Land Bank houses for bargain-basement prices and then uses an army of volunters along with professional contractors to complete the restorations relatively inexpensively. Land Bank houses on other blocks are also on their radar.

“We have so many families that are waiting to get homes,” Hicks said. “Building new costs $140,000 whereas a rehab like this costs $60,000 to $70,000.”

Habitat has provided existing Highland Avenue residents with home repair assistance, so if the organization finishes these homes and another privately-owned vacant building next year, every house on the block should be in good shape and occupied.

Dexter Murray, vice president of the Boston Heights/Mount Hope Neighborhood, got help for his 105-year-old house on Highland and is pleased about the Land Bank project.

“They’re helping us bring the neighborhood back,” he said.

▪  Adopt-a-lot. While the old Land Trust couldn’t sell side lots and other small, odd-size parcels at affordable prices, the Land Bank can sell pieces for $75 or even less to neighbors, for gardens, play areas and bigger lawns.

About 45 percent of the Land Bank’s sales already occur under that program. Anderson acknowledged he needs to get the word out more, but estimates as many as 1,000 of the 3,100 vacant lots could be disposed of that way.

▪  Tree farms. Chicago-based Fresh Coast Capital has already started urban farms with fast-growing hybrid poplar tree in Flint, Mich. and Gary, Ind. and is now looking at Kansas City.

“We create working landscapes on these vacant properties,” Fresh Coast Capital co-founder April Mendez told the City Council in a presentation Thursday. “You get a beautiful, parklike space in a very short amount of time.”

Anderson met Mendez about six months ago at a Detroit vacant properties conference and was intrigued with the company’s mission. His board was already exploring solutions for hundreds of acres that aren’t likely to be redeveloped and just sprout weeds and debris.

“We were going to do some reforestation and pay for it ourself,” Anderson said, adding that he would much rather have the private sector do it.

Mendez said her company has found investors in both Flint and Gary for hybrid poplar tree farms, and she is confident it can do the same in Kansas City. The trees grow 5 to 8 feet per year and are ready to harvest after about 12 years, for a variety of wood products. The company seeks a 15-year lease and would pay to maintain the lots during that time. Some lots could also be turned into flower farms for retail use.

Anderson is scouting city-owned and Land Bank land for a pilot project, with planting possible next spring. If it works, Anderson said the venture could be scaled up to hundreds of lots in reasonably close proximity.

Council members were enthusiastic, although Councilwoman Alissia Canady said it can’t replace the emphasis on bringing families back to the core.

As Anderson and Mendez surveyed a Land Bank lot Thursday at 18th and Cypress that might be a candidate for trees, resident Leaven Fountain worked in his yard across the street. While the vacant lot appeared mowed and clean, Fountain said it is often a magnet for trash.

When Mendez explained that her company could create a tree-filled setting there, Fountain said that would be a big improvement.

“Plant away,” he said. “We need it.”

National models

Kansas City’s approach is following what has worked in some other cities, says Frank Alexander, an Emory University law professor and expert on land banks across the country.

He notes the adopt-a-lot program is one of the fastest ways to get vacant parcels to residents who care about them and will do the maintenance.

Habitat is another good strategy, he said, adding that tree farms and urban agricultural uses can also work, but only if the grower has a good maintenance track record.

Alexander, who helped draft Missouri’s Land Bank law several years ago, notes that Kansas City now has more legal powers than the old Jackson County Land Trust, which had about 2,000 properties in the mid-2000s but then nearly doubled its inventory after the 2007-2009 foreclosure crisis.

Kansas City’s Land Bank is able to market properties more aggressively than the old Land Trust (the website is kcmolandbank.org and phone number is 816-513-9020).

It has city tax dollars of about $1.7 million annually for maintenance, and can accept offers of less than two-thirds the appraised value to get properties more quickly back into productive use. It can strategically assemble land for non-profits and other responsible owners.

While Mayor Sly James praises the Land Bank’s pursuit of innovative solutions, he acknowledges it still has a colossal challenge.

“It’s kind of like one of those losing battle things,” he said. “I think the overall approach has to be to improve the vitality and livability on the East Side, so that the Land Bank isn’t having to do all of this. We need to get people back in.”

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

Why poplars?

Hybrid poplars are extremely fast growing trees and can usually be harvested after 10 to 12 years. They can be used for pulpwood and engineered lumber such as picture frames, plywood and other products. They are also known for soaking up lots of stormwater and help remediate soil contamination.

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