Guest Commentary

Violence is the symptom, and inequality is the disease

Phil Glynn, candidate for mayor of Kansas City
Phil Glynn, candidate for mayor of Kansas City

At least 39 people have been shot in Kansas City in August. Our city has suffered at least 16 killings this month, and 86 so far this year. In 2017 we lost 150 to homicide.

Neighborhood leaders, families, police, prosecutors and clergy are on the front lines. They’re treating the symptom. They need everyone else — politicians, business leaders, voters — to focus on the disease: economic inequality.

The violence in our community and the failures of our economy are fundamentally linked. Our past economic decisions have placed many of our neighbors in desperate situations.

A lack of affordable housing is destabilizing families. Forty-seven percent of Kansas Citians rent their homes, and 49 percent of them pay more than 30 percent of their monthly income to keep a roof over their heads. Affordable housing production isn’t keeping up with rising rents. It’s why we see the possessions of evicted families piled up on sidewalks. It’s why teachers see students disappear from their classrooms and reappear in different buildings multiple times each year.

This instability has left many without the skills to take what quality jobs do exist. The job site Glassdoor reports there are thousands of middle-skill jobs — those requiring more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree — available in Kansas City. But too many people here lack the skills training and reliable transportation to take advantage of this opportunity. And as often as we read about open positions going unfilled, we hear of other business closures. When Harley Davidson’s retreat from the Kansas City market is complete in 2019, for example, about 800 jobs will have been lost.

There is a complex set of causes behind each unique act of violence, but economic instability is a consistent backdrop. In most newscasts or newspaper photos, deteriorating housing and crumbling infrastructure appear right alongside police tape and flashing lights. We’re failing to make progress because we aren’t responding to these economic causes.

Faced with an affordable housing shortage, the Kansas City Council granted a 25-year tax abatement to a luxury high-rise downtown, where rents are as high as $6,000 per month. They have responded to the skills gap our workers and employers face by doubling down on developers’ tax breaks, which erode our tax base and ignore the truly blighted parts of our community.

Some city political leaders blame the state’s inaction. They are partially right. Missouri allows too many guns to flood Kansas City’s streets. But some here also believe that a state law to change the governance structure of the Kansas City Police Department would stem the violence — transferring control of the police department from the Board of Police Commissioners, of which the mayor is one of five members, to the City Council and the mayor.

That won’t address this crisis. Now is not the time for politicians to fight over control. It’s time for leaders to fight for more investment in our distressed communities.

The truth is that we already have control over the causes of violent crime in our city. Let’s ensure that a portion of any new residential development is affordable and create mixed-income communities. Let’s insist that our economic incentives only be used in areas of high poverty and unemployment to create jobs for those who need them most. Let’s shift economic development resources from simply investing in buildings to truly investing in people.

Kansas City needs a chief skills officer to convene employers, unions, educators, students and mentors. We should reallocate city money that isn’t moving the needle and invest it in career skills training for our people.

The symptoms are flaring so terribly because we have failed to treat the disease for so long. Our recovery won’t be quick or easy. But the healing can’t start until we make a change.

Phil Glynn is a candidate for mayor of Kansas City.