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As taxes explode on Kansas City's Westside, homeowners get breaks normally saved for developers

A house is surrounded by a chain link fence. The fence is decorated with banners celebrating the Kansas City football team. Christmas lights hang off the roof and fence.
Celisa Calacal
/
KCUR 89.3
Alice Gomez's house on the Westside saw its tax assessment skyrocket in recent years, making it difficult for her to pay.

A new, City Council-approved plan will offer drastic tax cuts for Westside homeowners. It comes after the Westside experienced the highest increase in property taxes out of any Jackson County neighborhood.

Situated along Avenida Cesar E Chavez in Kansas City’s Westside neighborhood, Alice Gomez’s home is hard to miss.

Large Chiefs flags decorate the fence. Holiday lights are strung around the fence and roof. Inside, on a chilly December afternoon, the furnace roars in the cozy living room.

Gomez, now 80, has lived in the house since she was a child. She loves her community, and having a relationship with her neighbors.

“I will never leave the Westside,” Gomez says. “I will never leave here. This is my home for life.”

When she got her 2020 tax bill, though, she wondered whether that would still be possible.

For years, Gomez paid between $400 and $500 in property taxes — that was normal, and affordable, for her. Then, two years ago, a new assessment came: $2,400.

Gomez was devastated. And she wasn’t the only one.

“We got smashed,” Gomez says. “No other (neighborhood) in Kansas City got hit like we did.”

A woman in glasses and a red sweater sits on a reclining chair.
Celisa Calacal
/
KCUR 89.3
Alice Gomez, 80, sits in her living room in her Westside home, where she's lived for decades.

Data from 2018 to 2020 show the average assessed value for owner-occupied homes increased by 128% — the highest of any neighborhood in Jackson County, and far higher than the average increase of 18%.

Many homeowners on the Westside — which stretches north to I-670 and West 25th Street, south to West 31st Street, east to Broadway and Southwest boulevards, Summit Street, and Southwest Trafficway, and west to the state line and the railroad tracks – are in multigenerational households, Latino, older and living on fixed incomes.

When their tax bills skyrocketed, they couldn’t pay. More than 25% of owner-occupied homes in the Westside are behind on their property taxes.

In September, the Kansas City Council took an approach normally reserved for developers and businesses: tax breaks. Through the new Westside Chapter 353 Redevelopment Plan, homeowners can apply for dramatic cuts to their property taxes for the next 25 years.

What’s in the plan?

The redevelopment plan was created under Chapter 353, a local tax incentive program meant to redevelop blighted areas by easing taxes for 25 years. For the plan to pass, the Westside neighborhood was designated a blighted area.

Colleen Hernandez, a Westside resident who worked on the redevelopment plan, said more than 200 households applied for the first round of tax breaks, taking effect this year. Households can apply to the program for future tax relief over the next three years.

Hernandez said the property tax abatements for homeowners are based on their income, not the value of their property. The plan organizes owner-occupied households into six income groups. Households making less than $15,000 a year make up 20% of Westside housing units.

“Their tax bill goes from $800 to $3,000, they don't have a cushion,” she said.

Under the plan, those homeowners will only have to pay the land tax on their home for the first 10 years, which she said averages about $300 to $400.

For the next 15 years of the plan, those homeowners will pay 2.65% of their income in taxes.

“We arrived at that number because that's what the average Jackson County homeowner pays,” Hernandez said.

Gomez’s property taxes were set at $1,600 in the latest county assessment. It would’ve been difficult to pay, because she lives alone and on a fixed income after her husband died last year. Under the redevelopment plan, her taxes were lowered to about $1,100 for this year.

Homeowners with a higher income will receive less of a tax break. Hernandez and her husband saw their property taxes triple, from $2,000 to $6,000, in a two-year period. Because they make more than $150,000, $500 will be shaved off their tax bill for the next seven years.

As part of the plan, households will also pay a neighborhood benefit fee to the Westside Housing Organization, a local nonprofit focused on affordable housing, that will fund minor home repairs.

Some reservations 

Still, there are some reservations about the redevelopment plan — the same that come up when the city gives tax breaks to big developers. Jackson County Legislator Manny Abarca, who recently served on the board of Kansas City Public Schools as treasurer, is concerned about the impacts if the City Council approves similar plans in other neighborhoods.

“You are going to defund schools, you're gonna defund fire safety programs,” he said. “You're gonna start defunding entities you rely on.”

School districts receive funding through property taxes, so when the city gives out tax breaks to developers or, in this case, homeowners, that means fewer dollars flow to the district. Kansas City Public Schools was one of the only parties to oppose the plan.

Keeping the community intact 

Abarca, who represents the Westside, attributes the disparate increase in the neighborhood's property taxes to an improper assessment by the county and recent development.

“Because you've not seen that development over the last 30 years in the Westside, and you're seeing it all within the last five to 10, your values are compressed and they're gonna go up dramatically,” Abarca says.

Colleen Hernandez and her husband Bobby saw homes costing hundreds of thousands to a million dollars built next to their neighbors’ smaller, single-family homes. The couple started developing the Westside Redevelopment Plan after seeing how high tax assessments rattled the community.

“It just ran a lot of poor people completely out,” Bobby said. “They got scared. They don't know how to deal with it.”

Bobby’s fight to preserve the Westside is personal. His family’s roots there date back a century, when his grandfather immigrated to Kansas City during the Mexican revolution to work on the railroad. He bought a home on the Westside bluffs, overlooking that rail yard.

Like Bobby’s family, many Mexicans immigrated to Kansas City and built a strong, close-knit Mexican and Latino community on the Westside. For him and his wife, bringing tax relief to their neighbors and community members is about preserving that legacy and keeping people in their homes.

“This is the Mexican heart of metropolitan Kansas City,” Colleen says. “And having them lose their home to foreclosure would gut the community. It would destroy it as we know it.”

As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives.
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