Review: Our Divided City – PBS Kansas City

Kansas City is known as a bastion of history.  From western folklore, to blues music, to barbecue, Kansas City, on both sides of the river, has a tremendous cultural past, and is not truly valued as either should be.

Kansas City on the Missouri side has a big problem when it comes to housing, and always has.  For one, the city has a historic black neighborhood, that is considered to be physically marked by Troost Avenue.  Every neighborhood east of that main arterial is labeled as predominantly black, by municipal agencies, and in Our Divided City, an investigative journalism piece by PBS, is labeled as a segregated community.  The inference they make is that white people in Kansas City are keeping black people in this one part of the city, which accounts for the neighborhoods: Wendell Phillips, Boston Heights/Mt. Hope, Santa Fe, Oak Park, Palestine, Ivanhoe, Seven Oaks, South Round Top, Washington-Wheatley, Manheim Park, 23rd Street PAC,  Key Coalition, and Vineyard.

Anyone can look on at the dated images provided at Google Maps, and see that there is a major problem with boarded up houses, sitting in between occupied homes, or taking up half the block, where one person is by themselves, among what can only be described as a major fire trap waiting for a match.  But these houses attract occupants. Squatters on occasion, but criminals mostly.  Kansas City has a problem with youthful violence, some of it linked to gangs, a lot of the violence is linked to disputes among young men who are neighbors.  The story is just another iteration of one we hear over and over again, and no matter what resources are thrown at the problem, nothing changes.

In this case, KCMO Police have come up with the NoVA program, which stands for Kansas City No Violence Alliance.  The PBS video only provides a cursory glance at the program, but apparently the program works as an intervention strategy to break the cycle of violence that young men in the community seemed to be destined for as soon as they walk outside their homes.  They show how police are hands off with citizens identified as being at risk for violent crime, they print up graphic-heavy invitations for each person identified, and then the police hand deliver them.  The meetings take place every quarter, and involves a lot of speeches from civic leaders, religious clergy, social workers, and community members affected by violence.

They also speak with one participant in the program who says he’s left the violence behind, but they never discuss what he’s doing instead, nor what the program has provided to help him out of the cycle.  Since it is a new approach to addressing violent crime, no doubt there is success.  The true measure of such a program is whether it will have sustained success.

They then cut back to the Oak Park neighborhood, where this video began, to show the handful of neighbors in communication with one another, discussing a drug dealer who lives nearby, who is dealing directly out of the house, with cars passing through the neighborhood at all hours of day and night.  What makes this worse is that the citizens, who talk quite openly about their experience trying to remove people from the neighborhood involved in crime.  Their revelations?  Drug dealers threaten violence towards them.  Which should probably come as a big shock to everyone, since we’ve listened ad-nausea to the last nine or ten years of national media coverage on the topic of non-violent drug offenders, which include drug dealers, who are in prison for what is termed “lengthy” sentences.  Why so much concern?  Because these drug dealers are non-violent.  And yet, right here, on PBS film, we have citizens complaining that drug dealers in their neighborhood threaten violence against these tax-paying citizens for simply not wanting crime in their neighborhood.  But that’s not all.  On man in the film, Mr. Hill  describes how he has to carry a long gun, with a bed sheet over it to case a silhouette, to send the message to this drug dealer not to cause him harm.  Sounds like a very a non-violent situation, doesn’t it?

In another earlier segment linked to this part of the film, a very nice elderly couple talks about how they were singled out multiple times on their own street, in front of their house by who they termed as drug dealers, who stated “We’re going to kill you and all your family,” if the couple didn’t stop organizing their neighbors and putting pressure on drug dealers to stop committing crime.  Getting back to Mr. Hill, he contributes burglary, theft, extensive vandalism, and auto theft to the drug dealer on his street.  This couple makes similar inferences about the groups of drug dealers they are contending with.

I do wonder when we as a society are going to refute this mantra about drug dealers and how “non-violent” they are.  They tend to get caught dealing drugs, because that is the bulk of their activity, and drug crimes are the easiest cases to prosecute in the United States.  Theft and burglary is not very easy at all.  Sure, people get caught for these things, but for one burglar caught, there’s somewhere between 10 and 15 unsolved burglaries, on national average.  Adding another consideration here, how many times have you read about burglaries that have gone wrong?  In some, the criminals shoot home owners, in some home owners shoot criminals.  Does any of this sound non-violent to you?  Crime is a problem, because most assuredly crime only breeds more crime, especially when left unchecked.

The film moves to the Washington-Wheatley community where police have entered a vacant home, and arrested a felon on the run with a warrant.  The neighborhood reaction?  Celebration.  But in that same breath, the citizens bring up the fact of how many vacant houses are in their neighborhood.

And that brings us to our next portion of the film.  Vacant homes, trash, taxes, and a city hall pinned into it’s own system.

It turns out that with a cache of vacant houses, not only does it promote crime, but it promotes…..illegal dumping.  There’s way too much trash being dumped in these neighborhoods, that is clear.  The city has a public works function that conducts clean up of large piles of trash found in neighborhoods, usually within these vacant and empty lots.  The response time is awful, not even worth quoting.  But to make matters worse, the public works department cleaned up a lot that was reported and then promptly left their city logo branded trash bags on the sidewalk in front of the house.  It’s laughable to say the least, and while it amounts to two trash bags and a tire, it shows the ineffectiveness of leadership and expectations held within the public works department.  The concerned citizen calls in Mr. Hill, who we spoke of earlier, and he begins picking up the mess, and finding things that the public works staff didn’t find on the property, on the driveway.  Which really adds to the idea that the public works staff is not motivated to do a great service.

Mr. Hill then speaks on camera that he’s received several fines from the public works inspectors who are charged with enforcing building code on residential and commercial property, but that the home in question is owned by the city, and it has no gutters, eaves that are rotten and falling down, not mention busted windows, and an overall derelict appearance.  This is something that his property is not allowed at all, and he finds it unfair.

Which, on the surface is certainly accurate.  Especially with the current condition of vacant, city-owned homes, inspectors should be writing less infractions, and working with home owners in maintaining the property, especially if they live in the home, like Mr. Hill does.

However, the idea that the city should fix up these homes is silly, which is the suggestion made by Hill and the citizens he’s helping out with this trash pick-up.  When the city owns a property, they act as a surrogate, not a land owner, nor should they ever be in the business of being a land owner in that typical fashion.

There may be some some usefulness to them taking a few of these houses and fixing them up, and offer an incentive to police officers to live in them.  This type of program has been done before in specifically targeted low-income housing in other parts of the country, but this would be the first attempt at targeting what is considered a full-value neighborhood.  But considering the wide-spread problems of house blight, it is an idea that might actually rally the area.  And considering the pro-police view among the current home owners, this would be a welcome sight.

One point that PBS makes is that the year prior to filming, the city inspectors issued $660,000 worth of fines.  And it is likely that the city sees this fine system as a way to keep their public works budget in the black, in order to carry out what work they state they do, like trimming of weeds five times a year at each city owned house.

After a discussion about the lack of maintenance on city, there is more information about what Kansas City owns and doesn’t, and the numbers cause you to understand exactly what is causing the problem:  At the date of this film, city hall is in physical ownership of over 13,000 houses, within the area bounded by the mentioned neighborhoods.  It’s astounding that any form of government would have that much control over land within their jurisdiction, let alone a concentrated area.

The next segment of the film shows David Larrabee, an independently wealthy entrepreneur, who’s trying desperately to build a real estate market out of the blight, because as a person coming from the financial sector, he see’s that the only effective way of fixing this problem is creating a reasonable market, as in quality homes built and sold for well under what they would else.  In a sense, Larrabee is doing exactly what governments should be doing whenever they have this problem of abandoned homes, turn the government land grab into a private sector affair.  Unfortunately, Larrabee is facing issues with banks, who don’t see how he can be improving homes that originally trade on the city’s land bank trust.  Their issue is that the legal documents behind a home, like title, have questionable routes to how the city receives them, and who truly has a claim.  To give you further perspective, consider that if someone does have title rights to a home that Larrabee rebuilds, they could exercise title rights to the home in court, seeking removal of the person who purchased the home from Larrabee, which leaves the bank on the hook for the loan they authorized.  Which again, shows where government should be focusing their efforts.

In order to clear a path, government should be putting resources towards clearing the titles of the properties, rather than selling them as soon as they are in receivership, which is what this portion of the film is suggesting.

Mayor James appears again, and he discusses tax incentives given to developers, which the city school district has cried foul about.  And in a very quick and raw break down, the film makers suggest that the biggest tax incentives are found in the downtown core of Kansas City, and only a small amount are found in the northern end of the east side part of the city.

In this segment, the mayor receives a lot of quoted criticism, directly and indirectly, from various people who feel negatively impacted by his use of incentives.

The problem is that the idea is very skewed.  First, Kansas City’s downtown is heavily commercial in nature.  Commercial property holds much higher values than single family homes, by and large.  The idea that heavier incentives are in downtown is not nearly as big of a deal as the critics make it out to be, and it’s really their biggest red herring they launch into this discussion.

Second, when you look at the incentives given to the area in the far north of the east side, they are both developer-driven, and a big chunk of it is in commercial property…..so we’re not really re-inventing the wheel here.  Development groups in this day and age focus heavily on commercial ventures.  Any person with an 8th grade reading comprehension can spend a day reading a week’s worth of the Wall Street Journal and see that one of the biggest, stables, portion of the market is commercial real estate stock investment.  Whether we as a country want to admit it or not, commercial real estate is where the bulk of our investment and profit power resides.  If we want that to change, then we need to change our behaviors as individuals.  But I can tell you this, a place without commerce, is a place that will die, commune lifestyles do not succeed.  Look it up.

The next segment focuses on the police coming to a neighborhood on their own time to fully clean up a row of houses being used by criminals repeatedly.  It’s the feel good moment the tone of this unrelenting film needed.  But it comes with yet again, serious flaws in thinking.  The police are helping, neighbors are using chain saws to take out over grown trees, they have dumpsters to load everything into.  Even the fire department is out taking care of trash and debris.

The film catches up with John Wood, the housing director of Kansas City.  He’s the person in charge of the effort to deal with vacant homes, and manage their impact on the communities.

When he’s asked if he’s embarrassed by what he witnesses in the neighborhood he’s volunteering in that day, he shrugs that off, and says it causes him to want to work harder to find solutions.  And his solution?  More government power to exercise over disregarded homes, and he suggests that having power before the homes become forfeited due to back taxes.  I don’t know how he’s not embarrassed by that statement.  No one should be working to increase government power, and this statement alone should be alarming to residents.  The government doesn’t need more power.  If anything, the government needs to learn how to better use the power it’s already been given.

At your place of business, if an employee misses several crucial deadlines on a project, and they ask for more control of the project in order to meet demands, is that control given?  No, it isn’t.  This happens zero percent of the time.  In this case, the effort is no different.  It may be true that his agency is working at capacity, and has been flooded with forfeited homes, and doesn’t have the staff to compete in a sprint.  It’s more than likely that with a marathon pace, his agency can and will address each home.  But our expectations as consumers needs to temper.  Twitter may give us the ability to communicate with the world in seconds.  Convenience stores may allow us to purchase five items in the span of two minutes.  This doesn’t mean that the effort to cull a property, sell it at a tax auction, and keeping up with everything in between is going to happen in a week or a month.

If we truly care about our neighbors and our street, which if you’ve read any of my earlier work you know I’m a proponent of, then we have to dig our own two hands in, and government needs to facilitate, not manage, the problem.

Next they reflect on what has happened in the year during the filming process, and they speak with Major Joe McHale of KCMO Police, who had introduced us to the NoVA program earlier.  He was delighting in the fact that through August, they were on pace for a record low homicide count.  Most police departments look at the summer months as their worst in terms of violence and property crime.  Since it August was ending, and the trend was down, it would appear that Kansas City had every reason to look forward to a positive outlook in terms of crime.

And then September hit, and they had 22 homicides, not mention a slew of domestic and other violent crime that simply put the celebration on hold.  Major McHale suggests that it will be several years until they see impact.

The end message is mostly in unison, the Mayor, Major McHale, various citizens that were interviewed in the film saying that in the end, it comes down to the community coming together and stopping the violence, that government on it’s own can’t address it, the community as a whole needs to.

And it’s fitting that message finally shows up, because it should have been the entire message throughout the entire time.  There’s no reason why the community as a whole should not take a strong stance against violence.  There’s no reason why they shouldn’t have a strong sense of community.

Throughout this film, we continue to see how the neighborhoods are not appealing, aren’t places that promote individual growth, and are breeding grounds for crime.  And yet these same people who are so vocally against it all, continue to blame government for their problems.

One segment that paints a different picture is one showing where the Nutter-Ivanhoe Neighborhood Center gets some brief coverage about what they provide to community members; gardening classes, after school tutoring, a number of other functions.

But considering what all these neighborhoods are experiencing, why is there not an aggressive plan to buy back all the vacant homes in the neighborhoods?  Why have none of these civic-minded people thought to do that?  It’s quite amazing that this doesn’t come up once in the film.

A second consideration:  if it’s difficult for the city to clean up these properties, why are they not attempting to contract out the work?  Or better yet, offer money to the community associations for the work?  Cleaning up of the properties, as in trash removal and landscaping, as the film suggests, could be done at very competitive prices at the ground level through the associations.  At first sight, I can see a scenario where the government pays $250 per property clean up, plus dumping expenses at the proper facilities.  It’s a win-win for these associations, who already employ people.  For one, they can employ more full time staff for this work, most likely offering the jobs to unemployed youth in the community, and can see their property values increase.  Why hasn’t anyone come up with that idea?

The KC Land Bank sells these properties at auction for what they feel is competitive pricing, meaning they cover the tax bill, and if there is a bidding war, perhaps a little extra, which is roundly absorbed by their housing function.

Well, why don’t they look their sale averages, and offer these properties to the community organizations for half the price?  It gets government out of the land owner business, and it gives the communities greater control over what happens within their neighborhoods.  And before you swear this idea off, a quick glance at Kansas City Land Bank shows that most of these houses are selling for less than 500 dollars.  I can’t imagine that these community organizations couldn’t come up with money to get a hold of all these properties, even one by one if necessary.  With these organizations being the major holders of property, they could be the one’s with the power to decide who to sell them to for development purposes.  And with each of these people in these organizations having relationships with local banks on personal level, it makes it difficult for the banks not to want to finance projects to fix the houses for resale, or to approve a third party who fix the houses, sells them, and asks for appraisal and inspection, to get a proper review that is reflective of the revitalization effort.

One major complaint throughout the film is that there are liquor stores abound, but no place for typical commerce, like groceries, coffee shops, and such.  If the neighborhood organizations become the major land owner in the area, they could potentially have enough property in one concentration to reveal a potential location for re-zoning and the introduction of layered commercial ventures, with a focus on neighborhood members owning the businesses.  Again, why anyone in these communities wouldn’t try to take this on, I find it puzzling.

There are very easy fixes to this situation, and the people profiled in the film could work towards all of them, if their interests were in empowering the community.  I sure hope they are, because East Kansas City looks like they use it, and this could start a whole new way for neighborhood and community centers to repair their forgotten streets.

In the end, what I got out of this film was that the city needs to work harder to clear off and validate a clean title to transfer these properties, they need to focus on handing these properties off to these neighborhood organizations, and these organizations need to empower themselves by cleaning up the trash, and not waiting for the government.

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