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After Recession, Blue Hills Neighborhood Works To Change Its Reputation

Kansas City has a reputation for being one of the most affordable cities in the country to buy a home, and as the metro emerges from the recession, some of the most affordable neighborhoods are trying to draw in buyers.

The Blue Hills neighborhood, between Paseo Boulevard and Prospect Avenue and 47th and 63rd Streets, is one of those places. The neighborhood is close to two universities and the popular Country Club Plaza shopping district, and lies in Kansas City's eastside. But, houses in Blue Hills are significantly cheaper than the nearby Troostwood and Brookside neighborhoods - like near $100,000 cheaper - and the neighborhood is working to re-brand themselves from a neighborhood known for blight and crime, to one known as an affordable place to buy a home.

Helen Bryant started Bryant Real Estatenearly 20 years ago and calls herself an "affordable housing real estate agent."

“There are houses out here you can buy out here for $35,000!” says Bryant. “And a monthly payment of what $400? With taxes and insurance? And you're paying more than that for rent!”

When Bryant started her business, it was just her, now she has a dozen agents. She works in neighborhoods all over Kansas City's urban core, but she spends a lot of time in Blue Hills.

The neighborhood is filled with mostly shirtwaist-style homes and bungalows. There’s a mix of well-groomed yards, some board-ups and vacant lots. Ten thousand people live here, and the average household income is $34,000 a year. The average price of homes sold is about $70,000.

Bryant is selling a home for about that price on Olive Street. As she stops by the property to prepare for an open house she runs into Edward Lee, a neighbor who rents up the street.

“I thought this house was going to get torn down,” says Lee, who has been watching the progress from day one, and is amazed by the rehab work on the property.

Bryant invites Lee on a tour of the home, and they walk through the house as contractors finish up the final touches. She shows off the master bedroom, the basement and the new kitchen. 

Bryant loves these rehabbed houses. She says there are already too many vacant lots around here.

“You can only have so many gardens you know, and orchards. So rehab is the way to go. This is gorgeous,” she says.

The recession neighborhood

The houses in this neighborhood were first built in the 1930s and were home to white blue-collar workers. In the 1960s, residents moved to the suburbs as African-Americans moved in. The neighborhood went from 100 percent white to 90 percent African-American. In the 1980s population declined, and crime increased. Then, out of a hope to revitalize the area, Blue Hills Community Services was born. Their goal: to stabilize homeownership and reduce crime.

In the 1990s, the area started to see a development renaissance, and as interest in the neighborhood increased, so did property values. That attracted predatory investors, which became a problem when the housing crisis hit.   

“Oh, it was a nightmare,” says Bryant.

Credit Google Maps
The boundaries of the Blue Hills neighborhood are just north of 49th Street to 63rd Street and Paseo to Prospect Avenue.

And, she says, it wasn’t just predatory investors who were responsible. People got in over their heads, the economy was a mess and renters and homeowners in Blue Hills, like a lot of urban Kansas City, were hit hard.

Bryant and others working in the neighborhood realized that they needed to figure a way out.

“We don’t want what’s happened in the last 10 years to happen again ... foreclosures,” she says.

Lessons learned

Bryant Real Estate now offers homebuyer education, and Blue Hills Community Services has helped 225 homeowners make repairs. Blue Hills Community Services has also financed rehabs and even built new homes on what were once vacant lots. Seven years ago, Olive Street had only one homeowner, now there are 10.

One of those new homeowners is Anwar Jones.

“We really like having that experience being in the urban core,” says Jones.

Jones and his wife are young professionals and he says they love their new home and the neighborhood. They know everybody on the block and have barbecues in the summertime. They just had a baby and say the fate of the school district is the only thing that might get them to move out. Crime however, is not something they worry about.

The stigma of high crime is one thing that has come to haunt the Blue Hills neighborhood’s reputation, and is not completely without warrant. Crimes do still occur, most commonly theft.

“I hear so much bad about the inner-city,” says renter Edward Lee, who lives near Jones.

“Man I tell people all the time. It is so quiet over here. The only time you hear action going on is 4th of July and New Year’s. And that’s all over Kansas City,” he says.

The neighborhood association has taken steps to report incidents and promote safety in the neighborhood. Optimism is high, as there are more visible changes in the area. A new beautification effort of Brooklyn Park put in lighting, paths and landscaping, and Blue Hills Community Services built a new modern facility on Prospect Avenue that can be seen from 71 Highway. It’s a business incubator that’s providing area contractors with office space and resources, and it serves as a community meeting place.

“I mean I can’t tell you the number of people that said what’s going on, something is going on in that neighborhood, and that excites people,” says Joanne Bussinger, executive director of Blue Hills Community Services.

She says these visible changes have had a ripple effect on the community, and the neighborhood is inching its way back to its pre-recession numbers. Of the 3600 residential properties in the neighborhood, 55 percent of the residents own their home, and home appraisal values are rising.

Bussinger says the neighborhood still has a way to go, and they’re working block by block. She hopes that ongoing homebuyer education and continued community support, will increase individual homeownership in the area, and will stabilize the community in the years ahead.  

This look at Kansas City's east side is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will goBeyondOur Borders  and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what's being done to bridge or dissolve them. Be a source for Beyond Our Borders: Share your perspective and experiences east of Troost with KCUR

Every part of the present has been shaped by actions that took place in the past, but too often that context is left out. As a podcast producer for KCUR Studios and host of the podcast A People’s History of Kansas City, I aim to provide context, clarity, empathy and deeper, nuanced perspectives on how the events and people in the past have shaped our community today.

In that role, and as an occasional announcer and reporter, I want to entertain, inform, make you think, expose something new and cultivate a deeper shared human connection about how the passage of time affects us all. Reach me at hogansm@kcur.org.
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