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A Kansas City land trust is working to reduce blight and stabilize a disinvested neighborhood

A blue house with stone columns and a black deck
Savannah Hawley
KCUR 89.3
To ensure affordability, the Marlborough Community Land Trust sells homes below market rate but maintains ownership of the land on which they sit.

Since its inception in 2019, the Marlborough Community Land Trust has sold three renovated houses. Each was sold below market rate, in an effort to avoid gentrification.

There are hundreds of houses for sale right now in Kansas City. Only one of them — a blue, three-bedroom ranch in the Marlborough neighborhood in southeast Kansas City — is priced below market value and is only available to people whose income is 80% or less of the area’s median family income.

That’s possible thanks to the Marlborough Community Land Trust, which works to provide long-term affordable housing to low- and moderate-income people while stabilizing the neighborhood.

“We're trying to prevent displacement,” said Angela Martellaro, a board member with the land trust, and the listing agent for the house. “Other investors can come in and renovate a house and improve the quality and make it look nice, but then there's that concern of: ‘Is this gonna raise my property values? Are my taxes gonna go up?’ We're trying to remove the blight, improve the quality of housing, without having a negative impact on other residents.”

The land trust began in 2019, after years of research into the housing model by the nonprofit Marlborough Community Coalition.

“A lot of the homes had been lost to foreclosure during the 2008 financial crisis, there were a lot of predatory landlords and slumlords that weren't upkeeping the properties,” Martellaro said. “The community coalition saw a need for better quality housing in the neighborhood and more affordable housing, so the land trust arose out of that.”

Under the land trust model, the house and the land it sits on are separate entities. The buyer owns the house, and the land is held by the trust. The group then leases the land to a buyer for a small monthly rate, half of which goes into a maintenance fund for the buyer. This helps guarantee the house will continue to be affordable for future buyers, and less affected by an unpredictable housing market.

The Marlborough Community Land Trust takes extra measures to ensure the houses they sell are going to people who need them. Beyond the income limits, buyers must apply through the land trust and be pre-approved for a mortgage. Through a Capitol Federal Savings Bank community land trust loan program, some borrowers can get loans with no down payment.

The land trust accepts qualified buyers on a first-come, first-served basis, giving preference to those who live in the Marlborough neighborhood or have experiences there.

Renovating and rehabbing

The house at 8336 Wayne Ave. will be the land trust’s third sale. Like the others, it took months of renovation.

Prior to being purchased by the land trust, the blue, ranch-style home was abandoned and dilapidated. The trust’s director of Community Development and Operations, Meghan Freeman, said clearing the house's title of outstanding liens took months longer than the remodeling itself.

“Until those liens are paid, you can't get a clean title to sell it to someone,” Freeman said. “We have a line of credit from Blue Ridge Bank and Trust, so we can borrow … to pay for the contractor. Then when we sell the house we can pay off the line of credit, but that means that we're limited to doing one or two houses simultaneously because that's just all the dollars we have.”

After five months of financial work, volunteers and contractors began rehabbing the house. They removed walls down to the studs, replaced framing, reworked plumbing, changed the floorplan, and put in new fixtures and appliances.

“This house was a lot of work and it's going to be a great home for whoever ends up buying it,” said Erin Royals, an urban planner and the land trust board’s vice president. “That's who we try to target with these homes, people who might not be able to afford something of this quality (without) making sacrifices in terms of the quality. But a house like this can check a lot of boxes for folks that maybe wouldn't have been otherwise able to get into a home of this caliber.”

After the complete remodel, Freeman said the house is in the best condition possible for the new owners. If something does need repairs, the homeowner has access to the maintenance fund set up through the land trust. After a year of payments, including a lump sum paid during the purchase of the home, they will have about $600 to go towards upkeep.

“Each house is different,” Freeman said. “For example, now we're looking at if the roof needs to be replaced. We want the individual who gets the home to be pretty set so that they are not facing any big expenses when they first move in, because they are earning below the area median income. They don't just have disposable income to fix (problems that arise).”

A blonde woman with a pink shirt stands to the right, pointing to an open floor plan living room with grey walls and grey floors
Savannah Hawley
KCUR 89.3
Meghan Freeman shows prospective buyers around the land trust's latest house at 8336 Wayne Ave. The Marlborough Community Land Trust plans to build four more houses on vacant lots throughout the neighborhood.

One of many solutions

The land trust has been a welcome development in the community, but Martellaro said it’s just one of many potential solutions to a housing crisis.

“I think it's important to recognize that we just need a greater variety of options for housing,” she said. “I believe that we should have more than two options for housing — you know, you can rent or you can own, and that's it. For some people that's fine, but for some people, we do need to have a third option that makes housing more accessible.”

As a realtor who primarily works with middle- or low-income buyers, Martellaro said some of her clients spend nearly a year searching for a house in their price range – a range that shifts as interest rates climb.

The land trust doesn’t work for everyone, but she said it exists to meet the needs of people for whom home ownership is just out of reach.

Royals noted there’s a large difference between people who make 80% of the area’s median income and people who make 30%.

“This is not the only answer,” Royals said. “But I think the more that we can come up with different solutions — you might fail, but at least you tried something different. I think the way that things are currently works for some people, (but) it doesn't work for a lot more people.”

Royals was also conscious of a larger debate about what is truly affordable housing. After the Kansas City Council’s recent decision to eliminate a requirement that property developers make at least 10% of units available to extremely low-income residents who make 30% or less of the family median income, the board has been thinking about what it can do to provide even more affordable housing.

She said other critics question why the group is purposefully pricing homes for people who otherwise couldn’t afford one.

“There is a lot of anti-poor sentiment in this country,” Royals said. “There's this idea that if you are in a position where you're not able to afford a house or you're struggling to pay your rent, somehow you did something to deserve that. I find that idea really offensive, because you can do everything right and still be in a position where you can't afford a house.”

Looking to the future

With its third house on the market, the Marlborough Community Land Trust is beginning work on four other houses, all on vacant lots in the neighborhood. The group is also starting work on the Marlborough School, a 1927 building that has been vacant for 15 years.

Since it’s been abandoned, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. The roof needs to be repaired, the interior cleaned out and broken windows scattered among the grounds need to be picked up. But land trust volunteers are no strangers to that kind of work.

The group made it a point to find out what neighborhood residents wanted out of the old school building. Royals said the community engagement changed the land trust’s plans. Now, options like child care, a bank, grocery store, small business incubator and event space – all things the neighborhood doesn’t currently have – are on the list of ideas.

No matter what the school turns into, Royals said the land trust is committed to turning it and any future homes into assets for the community. Demolition, speculation and eventual displacement are not options, she said.

“Another thing that we don't talk enough about here in Kansas City is how much of our neighborhoods we've lost to demolition, and demolition being that go-to solution (for blight),” Royals said. “Instead of looking to demolish, we're really trying to save these houses and save these buildings and give them a second life.”

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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