The burned up and abandoned property at 2415 Kensington Ave. in Kansas City, MO. Graffiti covers the the property, much of the roof is missing or scorched, and fire damage can be seen throughout the property. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

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When Kansas City successfully sought state legislation to create a land bank in 2012, leaders hoped the government entity would restore tax-delinquent properties to their former glory as liveable homes.

In the early years, sales ramped up each year. Hundreds of vacant lots and abandoned properties were resold to businesses and community members invested in bringing positive development to underserved neighborhoods.

But now, the Kansas City Land Bank has begun to resemble a warehouse cluttered with inventory that won’t sell and costs that won’t quit. And at least one group committed to decent and affordable housing in Kansas City has questioned the makeup of the board of commissioners, especially the qualifications of its interim chair. 

Currently, the Land Bank’s inventory is dominated by vacant lots — 2,739, to be exact. The remaining 111 structures in the Land Bank’s ownership have been reserved for its $1 housing initiative, which aims to incentivize the development of housing for unhoused people. 

As the lots sit unpurchased, they cost the city money. Contractual services, such as mowing, tree trimming and cleaning of dangerous buildings, made up 72% of the Land Bank’s budget in 2020.

“We have a scale issue at the Land Bank — insufficient staff to handle numbers and an increasing number of lots to significant expense,” said Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas. He hopes the agency will play a long-term role in restoring abandoned properties but says its effectiveness is hampered by a lack of resources.

Land banks gain traction nationally, but funding problems are widespread

The nation’s oldest land bank started in Missouri — on the other side of the state. In 1971, St. Louis established the Land Reutilization Authority with the intent of managing tax-delinquent properties and selling them to residents who promised to restore them. 

Kansas City adopted the idea several decades later. The Kansas City Land Bank was created through a Missouri statute. 

Meanwhile, the idea of collecting and maintaining vacant and dilapidated properties and selling them to buyers motivated to fix them up was catching on nationally. The National Land Bank Network estimates about 250 land banks have been created.

The size and impact of land banks varies dramatically. A survey by the National Land Bank Network found land banks overall have an average of 1,887 properties. In Detroit, Michigan, the land bank has 82,000, the largest amount of any land bank in the U.S.

The ways land banks acquire properties vary as well. The Kansas City Land Bank receives tax-delinquent properties from Jackson County — a common strategy. Some land banks are able to turn down property donations, but others are not. 

Ensuring that the properties are managed effectively is a costly, time-intensive endeavor. The National Land Bank Network reported that 47% of land banks have a staff of one full-time employee or fewer. Kansas City’s Land Bank has five full-time employees, according to the city’s annual budget, a number that has remained steady for three years. 

Kansas City Land Bank reached its sales peak in 2017

In 2017, the Land Bank approved 655 property sales, the highest number since its creation in 2012. Many buyers acquired multiple properties that year — a recent Beacon investigation found one of those buyers was DC Capital and Investments, which purchased 43 properties for a total of only $3,225

The next year, the Land Bank recorded almost 200 fewer sales. The downward trend continued in 2019. In 2020, the Land Bank sold only 31 properties. Of those, seven were sold to neighborhood associations, including the Lykins Neighborhood Association, which has invested in restoring abandoned and vacant properties.

Kansas City Land Bank Executive Director Tracey Bryant said the downtick in sales is a natural part of the process. 

“At the onset, the Land Bank had a larger inventory with structures, and over the years, that number has decreased due to properties being sold as well as a decrease in the number of new parcels received,” Bryant said in an emailed statement.

As property sales decreased, the budgeted costs for maintenance of the existing inventory did not. Mowing lots is an ever-present cost that takes up the majority of the maintenance budget. And when the Land Bank receives dangerous buildings, it might invest in services to stabilize them until a buyer can be found. 

KC mayor commits to appointing new land bank commissioners

As sales have languished and costs have remained steady, questions have arisen about the Kansas City Land Bank’s governance. 

The mayoral appointees on the bank’s five-member board of commissioners have remained unchanged since Lucas took office in 2019. Commissioner Kathleen Pointer was appointed to the board by the Kansas City Public School District earlier this year. The positions are several of the hundreds of board appointments waiting to be updated, a process Lucas said will take time. 

In a meeting with the mayor in June, KC Tenants, a vocal housing justice group, asked Lucas to commit to removing Julie Anderson as interim chairperson of the Kansas City Land Bank’s board of commissioners.

A Beacon investigation found that Anderson, a Kansas City attorney, had a professional relationship with a Land Bank buyer. Her firm is also known for its work representing landlords in eviction proceedings, a fact that KC Tenants members say directly undermines the Land Bank’s promise to help ensure housing stability. 

Lucas told the tenants’ group he intended to replace all commissioners appointed by Sly James prior to his administration. Five months later, the board remains unchanged. 

Brandon Henderson, a KC Tenants organizer, says the group wants Lucas to act swiftly to replace Anderson.

“We think it is unacceptable that she retain her position as interim chair of the Land Bank, or her position on the Land Bank at all, especially as the Land Bank is a proposed avenue for solutions for our unhoused community,” Henderson said in the meeting with Lucas. “We believe that people who profit off of the systems that harm us should never be in these types of decision-making positions.”

When reached by The Beacon, Lucas reiterated his commitment to appointing new commissioners, but would not provide a date for when that would happen.

Meanwhile, the Land Bank is working to make its plans fit into the larger goal of city development and to ensure that the vacant lots don’t sit vacant forever.

“The land parcels that are vacant lots can be used for infill housing development and the assemblage of property for future development in a manner consistent with the purposes of the City’s consolidated plans,” Bryant said in the statement. 

Those vacant lots that are now a costly blight and headache? Bryant pointed to the possibility of gardens, parks and other green spaces. But it could be years before development materializes — Land Bank properties often take a long time to be fully rehabilitated. 

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Emily Wolf is a local government accountability reporter with a focus on telling meaningful stories through data at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.