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Here's How Hickman Mills Became A Forgotten Community In Kansas City

Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3
In January, Barb Wunsch had to explain to a ninth grader who'd left the district in the fall why she couldn't get her old schedule back.

Starting in the 1990s, Hickman Mills became a forgotten community. Middle-income families moved out. Blight moved in. Drive through the neighborhoods today and the symbols of disinvestment are everywhere – gutters falling off houses, trash in yards, payday loan shops where stores used to be.

“It’s just strictly rental there now and nobody takes care of the yards. Nobody trims the trees. Nobody looks out for the other person,” says Jerry Porterfield, a longtime landlord in the area.

RELATED: Elsewhere In Kansas City, Community Investment Brings Stability To Schools

As part of a project KCUR calls 'Musical Chairs,' journalist Barbara Shelly is spending a year inside two classrooms in an elementary school in the Hickman Mills School District. KCUR's Elle Moxley also contributed to this report.

Porterfield mostly rents Section 8 properties, which low-income families get a federal subsidy to rent. Though he has a reputation as a good property owner – quick to make repairs and fair with tenants – he’s been selling off his houses in south Kansas City neighborhoods like Ruskin.

“I wish I didn’t have anything there now,” he says.

Others, though, see opportunity in the low-slung houses – but too often of the wrong kind. Out-of-town investors purchase properties by the bundle.

“They can buy ’em and just flip ’em, basically,” says Barb Wunsch, coordinator of enrollment and residency for the Hickman Mills School District. “We have a lot of property management companies out here. Some of them are from out of state, and it’s very difficult to get them to do anything for our families.”

Wunsch understands better than almost anyone what three decades of disinvestment have meant for this community. She has lived through it, refusing to leave her home as neighbors packed up and moved. And she deals with it daily as families move their children in and out of Hickman Mills classrooms, no more rooted to their schools than they are to their neighborhoods.

That disinvestment is precisely why mobility is so devastating to a school district. People don’t care as much when they don’t think they’ll be sticking around.

Living in rentals

With an enrollment of about 6,400 students, the school district remains the only source of identity for a once-autonomous community. After the small city of Hickman Mills was annexed by Kansas City in 1961, residents resisted becoming part of the district that’s today known as Kansas City Public Schools. In fact, many families moved to Hickman Mills because it was seen as better and safer than the urban school system.

But now, in a community of concentrated poverty, the Hickman Mills School District deals with a set of problems that families from Kansas City’s core once moved south to escape.

Credit Barb Shelly / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Trash and broken furniture litters the curb in a neighborhood in the Hickman Mills School District.

Forty-five percent of the occupied housing stock within its boundaries is rental, according to information compiled by the Kansas City Planning and Development Department. Almost 13 percent of the housing is vacant. And because many homeowners are older or have sought other school options, most of the children who attend Hickman Mills schools live in rental properties.

That leads to a state of flux that plays out continuously in Wunsch’s office.

One morning a mother came to report a change of address and see if her children needed to change schools. Shaunte McElroy had moved to a place in Hickman Mills in the summer and thought she had found her dream house – a place big enough for her and four children.

Then it rained. The basement flooded. Mold appeared. And the landlord never showed up.

So four months later, with the school year well underway, McElroy moved. She considered herself fortunate when Wunsch told her only one of her kids needed to change schools.

Landlords have their horror stories, too, and Wunsch has heard them all. She knows that tenants jump from one rent special to another, sometimes putting utility bills in the names of their children if the parent is behind on payments. She knows about trashed rooms and busted sinks.

“Some of these parents show up, and this is the fourth school they’ve been in this year,” Wunsch says. “I see frontline what this transitory nature does.”

Who’s buying?

Hickman Mills over the years has borne the brunt of some ruinous housing policies. Under pressure to locate Section 8 housing units outside of the Kansas City Public Schools boundaries, the Housing Authority of Greater Kansas City began locating units there in the late 1980s. Nearby property values dropped, and owners sold to investors, some of whom themselves got into the Section 8 program.

But Section 8, which is coveted by low-income tenants, is actually more stable than some other rental housing.

In 2007 and 2008, Hickman Mills neighborhoods were clobbered by the foreclosure crisis. For years brokers had sold homes to families for inflated prices at adjustable-rate and sometimes interest-only mortgages. When interest rates went up, housing values didn’t. Unable to keep up with their mortgages or sell their homes, buyers abandoned properties in droves. Investors swooped in. It’s possible today to purchase a home for not much more than $20,000, throw on a fresh coat of paint and rent the property for $800 or more a month.

Sandy Sexton, office manager of the Ruskin Heights Homes Association, says about 200 of the 1,800 properties she keeps track of changed hands in a recent 12-month period. And that tally doesn’t include moves by tenants.

“I know that the schoolchildren are moving in and out like crazy,” she says. “I can’t imagine what that’s like for the teacher.”

Not all of the changes are negative. Sparked by the massive Cerner office park development at the site of the old Bannister Mall, some investors are purchasing homes in Ruskin with the aim of improving their value.

“I know some rehabbing landlords who are excellent,” Sexton says. “I know others who you feel like are just sucking the value out of the property.”

Credit Elle Moxley
Elle Moxley
Yohana Gomez, left, and her stepdad, Rogelio Romo, fill out forms in Barb Wunsch's office. Gomez started the year in Hickman Mills, moved to Kansas City, Kansas, to live with a relative, before returning to the district.

People look to Cerner as the great hope for bringing change to the Hickman Mills area, although no one seems quite sure how that will work.

“I have 20 homes in the area. I’m just very hopeful that when Cerner comes in they’ll bring much needed money and energy and people that can have an impact,” says Larry Hedenkamp, who renovates properties and either rents them out or sells them to investors.

But right now the provisionally accredited Hickman Mills School District is both the victim of a dysfunctional housing milieu and a contributor to it.

“That’s the first question buyers ask,” Hedenkamp says, referring to the schools. “I say they’re tough, not the best, but the investors don’t care. They hope they’re good but that’s not the main thing they’re looking for.”

Seeking stability

Cerner workers will care, however. The middle-income homebuyers so coveted in south Kansas City want quality schools. If Hickman Mills neighborhoods are to stabilize, the school district will have to get better.

Dennis Carpenter, the outgoing superintendent, knows this.

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Even though he's leaving for Lee's Summit at the end of the school year, Dennis Carpenter has continued to advocate loudly for Hickman Mills. Here he is in February, attending a meeting to oppose opening a charter school in the district.

“There’s nobody out there waiting to come save us in a place like Hickman Mills,” he says. “Our families don’t have the means. So these problems that we’ve had, our best opportunities to solve them are related to us rolling up our sleeves and getting them solved amongst ourselves.”

Carpenter, who is taking the top job in the Lee’s Summit School District in July, acknowledged that solving problems is difficult in an underfinanced school district with an impoverished, transient enrollment. Milestones he’s achieved in Hickman Mills, such as universal preschool, are difficult to sustain when children and families keep moving in and out of the schools.

Still, Carpenter says, you have to keep trying.

“It maybe makes it look like three steps forward and two steps back and then three again and you lose two but you still netted a positive two. The alternative is not to do it and get no improvement,” he says.

Back in the district’s enrollment office, Wunsch also hopes the opening of the Cerner campus will spark a return of the middle class to Hickman Mills.

“I’ve been here 40 years this year,” she says. “I bought my house in 1977. Now, my kids would like me to go somewhere. But you know what? This is my home. I’m going to be here until it falls down around me.”

Barbara Shelly is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her at bshellykc@gmail.comElle Moxley covers Missouri schools and politics for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Barbara Shelly is a freelance reporter and editor based in Kansas City, Missouri.
Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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