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Kansas City neighborhoods are suing to take control of housing a Denver company neglected

 Trash is littered against the wall of a brick building.
Celisa Calacal
KCUR 89.3
Trash piles up next to one of the apartment buildings owned by Whitestone, located at 3000 E 49th Street in Kansas City.

Neighborhood groups are partnering with local legal organizations to sue Whitestone, a Denver-based investment company that owns many properties in Kansas City's low-income areas, for its neglect of several apartment buildings.

Seven empty brick buildings stand on a quiet street just off Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Kansas City. Wood boards cover windows and entryways. Mounds of trash pile up between each building.

The abandoned property at 3000 E. 49th Street is classified as a dangerous building in Kansas City. To the residents of the neighborhood, called Town Fork Creek, the dilapidated buildings are an eyesore.

“It's very depressing because we take pride in our community,” said Lisa Ray, president of the Town Fork Creek Neighborhood Association. “Most of our neighbors are upgrading their homes and everything, and they're mostly retired, so they're always out. So for them to have to ride by and see this, it's kind of appalling. It's depressing for our youth to come out and see it.”

The apartments are among many properties purchased by Whitestone Real Estate Fund — a Denver-based company — over the last four years that have since become areas of blight. Fed up with the company’s neglect, neighborhood groups partnered with local legal nonprofits to take Whitestone to court, get ownership of the buildings and turn them into livable, affordable housing.

The groups have filed four lawsuits against Whitestone so far, targeting the company’s properties at 3000 E. 49th St., 622 Hardesty Ave., 145 Hardesty Ave., 4088 Independence Ave., and 3224 Independence Ave — all of which are falling into disrepair. Some of the properties have racked up numerous property violations. The Lykins Neighborhood, the Indian Mound Neighborhood and Community Builders of Kansas City — the city’s largest urban core developer — are all suing.

“We're sending a notice today, against Whitestone and all the other corporate investors that are buying properties in our community, that we will not stand for this,” said Alissia Canady with Neighborhood Legal Support. “We will not stand for the abuse, the neglect and displacement of our residents in Kansas City.”

Legal Aid of Western Missouri and Neighborhood Legal Support Services brought the lawsuit under Missouri’s Abandoned Housing Act, a statute that neighborhoods and not-for-profits have often used in Kansas City to take ownership of blighted properties from neglectful owners and rehab them into affordable housing.

Under the Missouri Abandoned Housing Act, Whitestone can propose its own rehab plans for the four properties. With court approval, not-for-profits would complete the rehab work, and Whitestone can keep the properties if it reimburses the organizations for the cost of the work. But if Whitestone does not pay for the rehab, then the not-for-profit – in most cases, the neighborhood association – would receive ownership of the properties after a year..

“It's a critical resource that we use every day,” said Gregg Lombardi, executive director of Neighborhood Legal Support.

 A wooden board that says "no trespassing" covers the entryway to an apartment building.
Celisa Calacal
KCUR 89.3
Wooden boards cover the entryway and windows of one of the apartment buildings owned by Whitestone, an out-of-state company, at 3000 E. 49th Street in Kansas City.

Families once lived in the apartments along 3000 E. 49th Street. Last year, Canady said, Community Builders received notice that the property was no longer habitable, forcing all residents to relocate.

“The city wants to figure out how to end homelessness. The stuff that's happening here is moving us in the opposite direction,” said Josh Henges, Kansas City’s Houseless Prevention Coordinator. “It has never been harder to get folks housed than right now. And it's never been harder to keep folks housed than right now.”

On its website, Whitestone says it acquires single-family homes “below replacement cost and within the path of revitalization.” It boasts more than $100 million in assets and has acquired more than 1,300 single-family homes, many in Kansas City.

The investment company owns more than 300 apartments across Kansas City, most located in low-income neighborhoods. In at least four neighborhoods, Whitestone has allowed the properties to remain empty, abandoned and dilapidated, causing frustration among neighborhood groups and residents.

“We know what happens when people abandon properties like this in our neighborhood,” said Jimmy Fitzner, president of the Indian Mound Neighborhood Association. “Vacant lots lead to illegal dumping. It leads to crime in our neighborhoods. We're not gonna stand for it anymore.”

As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives. I break down political jargon so people can easily understand policies and how it affects them. My work is people-forward and centered on civic engagement and democracy. I hold political leaders and public officials accountable for the decisions they make and their impact on our communities. Follow me on Twitter @celisa_mia or email me at celisa@kcur.org.
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