4401 E. 9th St. in the Lykins neighborhood was recently renovated. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)
Using a Missouri law, the Lykins Neighborhood Association has been able to convert decrepit properties like this one at 4401 E. 9th St. into quality affordable housing. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

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Diana Graham’s first home was a two-bedroom Craftsman house in the Lykins neighborhood in northeast Kansas City. Its design plans came from a Sears catalog.

That was in 1947. Graham, now 74 and vice president of the Lykins Neighborhood Association, later lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, for nearly 30 years but returned to Lykins in 2010. She lives in that same house, near Seventh Street and Monroe Avenue. And Graham owns the house right next door, also a two-bedroom Craftsman.

Graham loves her neighborhood for its diversity. Her block has “probably 10 different countries represented,” she said. But like other aging Kansas City neighborhoods, Lykins struggles with problems like blighted and abandoned housing and crime.

What sets Lykins apart at the moment is a ground-up strategy for rebirth. The neighborhood, named after Johnston Lykins, considered Kansas City’s first legal mayor, is seeing the results of a concerted effort known as the Lykins Focused Community Development Project.

Lykins stretches north to south from Independence Avenue to the railroad tracks that run diagonally from Truman Road to Ninth Street. Benton Boulevard borders it to the west and Hardesty Avenue on the east.

Before and after the renovation of 4401 E. Ninth St. in the Lykins neighborhood.
(Courtesy photos from Gregg Lombardi)

Late last month, the neighborhood association announced it was seeking proposals to build at least 15 new homes on more than 2.5 acres of vacant lots surrounding Lykins Square Park as the project’s next step. The association has more than 40 project partners, including the city of Kansas City.

Gregg Lombardi coordinates the project. He is executive director of both the neighborhood association and Neighborhood Legal Support of Kansas City Inc. and is a former executive director of Legal Aid of Western Missouri

“This is an exciting moment for Lykins,” Lombardi said in a news release. “There was a time when the park was used more by drug dealers than by children. Now we have five youth soccer teams playing here and the drug dealers are pretty much gone. Positive development of blighted properties has made a big difference.”

Lombardi said in an interview that the request for proposals was distributed widely, including to about 10 builders who have been active in Lykins or expressed interest in building in the neighborhood.

He expects the winning development proposal to be chosen by the end of June. After that, one of two timing scenarios is likely: the start of a multifamily housing development by the fall; or a more extended process if the winning applicant seeks low-income housing tax credit funding from the Missouri Housing Development Commission. In that case, groundbreaking would probably be delayed until spring of 2023.

Before and after the renovation of 3223 E. 6th St. in the Lykins neighborhood (different angles).
(Before photo courtesy of Gregg Lombardi) (After photo by Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

The community development project started in 2018 when Lombardi used Neighborhood Legal Support’s resources to partner with the neighborhood association and take advantage of Missouri’s Abandoned Housing Act

The state law provides a tool for places like Lykins to make a small dent in Kansas City’s vast backlog of blighted and abandoned houses. 

As of March 9, Kansas City has 407 properties classified as a dangerous building, and 85 — more than 20 percent — are in ZIP codes 64124 and 64127, which include Lykins.

Beacon investigation last year found that dangerous buildings sometimes are left standing for years as evidence of blight and disinvestment. These properties often become magnets for illicit activity like illegal dumping.

Using the Abandoned Housing Act, the neighborhood association began taking ownership of blighted homes from absentee owners, saving the buildings from the wrecking ball and preventing more vacant lots. 

How the Missouri Abandoned Housing Act works

The Abandoned Housing Act enables not-for-profit groups, including many neighborhood associations, to sue in civil court for ownership of dilapidated properties. 

The property must fulfill three requirements, Lombardi said: It’s delinquent with code violations, it’s been empty for six months and it’s not legally occupied. A property does not have to be on the city’s dangerous buildings list to be an Abandoned Housing Act case.

If the not-for-profit group is successful in taking ownership, it  signs a contract with someone who will renovate the home. The remodeler will own the property when the work is complete.  

Affordable housing is key

While renovating blighted houses beautifies neighborhoods, attracts new residents and invites reinvestment, providing affordable housing is also a major part of the Lykins project’s mission. 

The project’s partners aim to make one-third of the housing affordable (30% of the neighborhood’s area median income is Lombardi’s rule of thumb), one-third workforce (“highly affordable for people who are in regular workforce jobs,” Lombardi said) and one-third market rate.

“Our sense is, having that financial diversity is also really healthy for the neighborhood,” Lombardi  said.

Census data shows Lykins’ median household income is nearly $24,000, which is less than half of the median income for Kansas City overall.

 How to increase affordable housing and avoid gentrification of a neighborhood “is a really tough thing,” Lombardi said. 

A boundary map of the Lykins neighborhood in Kansas City’s northeast neighborhood. (Courtesy of Lykins Neighborhood)

The project partners prefer to work with rehabbers and builders who build affordable housing, including Habitat for Humanity of Kansas City, Westside Housing Organization and Healing House Inc., a  housing provider for people recovering from drug and alcohol dependency.

Lombardi said it costs about $80,000 to restore a “seriously blighted” house in a neighborhood like Lykins, not counting the acquisition price. A new house of the same size typically would cost an average of $200,000 to $225,000 to build, he said. 

“We’re talking about a pretty humble, 1,300-square-foot, two- to three-bedroom house,” Lombardi said. “Right now, it is a real challenge to be able to build a house for that amount and sell it for that amount. It is much more cost-efficient to rehab blighted properties.”

Partners are crucial to the Lykins neighborhood effort

One of the Lykins Neighborhood Association’s  partners is the nonprofit Trust Neighborhoods. It has been working with the association to support renovations of blighted buildings and prevent the displacement of residents. The nonprofit’s goal is to develop about 40 Lykins properties in the next 18 months and make 70% of those affordable in perpetuity, Lombardi said. 

Trust Neighborhoods CEO David Kemper said his organization helped the neighborhood association form a mixed-income neighborhood trust. He expects it to close on a new, $1.15 million round of capital this summer to expand renovation work, separately from the association’s recent request for proposals to build new houses on 2.5 acres.

“I think it’s exciting to see a neighborhood being deliberate about both rebuilding into places where there has been deep disinvestment and a loss of a lot of neighborhood fabric, but (also) being thoughtful about making sure that also maintains affordability as investment continues to come into neighborhoods like Lykins,” Kemper said. 

He said the approach in Lykins can be an alternative to the dilemma of either having disinvestment or displacement in a neighborhood, which Kemper called “a false choice.”

“With the right tools, you should be able to have neighborhoods finally have the investment they deserve as well as have (the) benefit of current residents and not create displacement and more injustice.”

As the Kansas City codes inspector for the area that includes Lykins, Craig Straws plays a big part in helping the project’s partners achieve those goals. 

“When I first began inspecting in that area, I can’t even tell you how many vacant and run-down properties there were,” Straws said. “You just can’t compare what the neighborhood looks like today compared to six, seven, eight years ago.”

Karen Reilly shares the goal of increasing affordable housing in Lykins and elsewhere in Kansas City. Reilly is an independent contractor and co-owner of Kansas City-based CORE Urban Renew. Her for-profit company rehabbed five houses for the Lykins project last year and has six more underway, and it has rehabbed houses in the city’s east side.

“Our belief is that the urban core would be best served by quality housing development and redevelopment of homes that are blighted, as well as good educational opportunities,” Reilly said. “That is really our interest. This is our hometown. We have a passion for the urban core and for improving these houses. … It’s a long road to take, but it’s a road you have to enter to get this process going.”

That road pleases Diana Graham, because the project’s partners are working hard to bring Lykins back to its “former glory.”

“Anybody who knows me knows how much I love the Lykins neighborhood,” Graham said. “It feels like a community. … We want to be held up as an example of what a (committed) neighborhood can do.”

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Jerry LaMartina

Jerry LaMartina is a freelance reporter for The Beacon. He's worked as a reporter, electronic-media copywriter, editor and website editor for more than 25 years.