When it comes to fighting blight in his east Kansas City neighborhood, Dale Fugate sometimes takes matters into his own hands during neighborhood clean-ups.
“I'm a little bolder than a lot of people, and I just take a trash bag up and clean the front yard up and somebody might complain, I don't know,” said Fugate, who helped start the McCoy Park Neighbors group. “But usually in a situation like that, it's an abandoned house. There's nobody there. And actually the neighbors are all glad you do it.”
Under a bill passed by the Missouri General Assembly with just hours left in this year’s session, Fugate would have the ability to do those clean-ups without any legal consequences.
Democratic Sen. Kiki Curls of Kansas City has been pushing what she calls the “good neighbor bill” for years. It allows neighbors or neighborhood associations to clean up trash and debris, mow the lawns and seal up doors and windows of abandoned properties. The legislation would apply only in Kansas City, Independence, the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County.
"They cannot enter the interior of the property, it is only (for the) exterior," Curls said on the Senate floor last month. “And there would be then no liability on the person entering the property, and they then could not bring a case against the owner of the property in case of any injury.”
For some officials, the measure is well-intended, but raises concerns about property rights. Gov. Mike Parson vetoed a bill containing similar language last year.
“I understand the dilemma that many of our communities face with derelict and abandoned properties, but I want to ensure that any remedy we propose puts the safety of our citizens and the rights of property owners at the forefront,” he wrote in a letter to lawmakers explaining his veto.
Parson has not yet indicated what he will do with this year’s bill. Changes, based on the issues raised in the veto letter, were made to the legislation, but opposition among some local officials remains.
“While it's great in theory that someone would want to go cut the grass in a yard where there is no apparent owner or occupant, what happens when the person who is trying to be nice and do the right thing steps in a hole and breaks her ankle? Then what happens,” said John Baccala, spokesman for Kansas City’s Department of Housing and Neighborhood Services. “There's all these scenarios, and granted they're all worst case scenarios, but there's all those things that have to be considered because once again, we're dealing with private property and that's the real issue.”
Baccala said the city has been working to track down out-of-state owners of vacant properties. They’re now required to have a local representative. He said the preferred way for neighbors to handle blight in their communities is to report it to city officials first. But there’s only 40 code enforcement officers right now, with 13,000 cases already on the books.
“So we have a lot of area to cover with very few people and a really high caseload. So chances are, unless we're working in other cases in that neighborhood, we may not have seen it,” Baccala said. “So I would encourage anybody who has a problem property like that to call 311 or (816) 513-1313 and report it, get the ball rolling on it.”
Baccala also pointed to the work of the Land Bank, which acquires vacant properties and tries to market them for sale.
In the meantime, there are other tools neighborhood organizations are using to combat blight. Fugate said McCoy Park Neighbors worked with Legal Aid of Western Missouri to acquire a couple of houses utilizing the Missouri Abandoned Houses Act. It allows the takeover of abandoned properties under certain conditions, including arrearage of taxes and the house being the subject of several nuisance complaints.
“Where we've used it, it's where somebody has just walked away and maybe it's an outside investor or maybe it's sometimes we don't know what it is,” Fugate said. “Using Legal Aid, we've contacted them and we've now got two of those houses into homeowners’ hands.”
Leaders of other neighborhood groups said there are smaller steps the city could take to address the issue as well.
“The city should be encouraging people who are rehabbing houses in the urban core and whether that's through direct funding assistance to them or making sure that when somebody buys an abandoned house, they don't get cited with a code violation two weeks after they bought the house that's been blighted for eight years,” said Gregg Lombardi, interim executive director of the Lykins Neighborhood Association in Northeast Kansas City and former executive director of Legal Aid of Western Missouri.
But overall, Lombardi said a lot of progress has been made in Kansas City when it comes to the issue of quality of life in the urban core.
“There's a small but dedicated percentage of neighborhood association leaders that ... have been working in lots of neighborhoods tirelessly to make the urban core a better place,” he said. “We need to make sure that we're doing everything that we can empower them to do more of it.”
If Parson signs the latest bill, it would take effect in August. The legislation would also allow some neighborhood associations to file suit against nuisance properties, without having to prove actual damages.
Samuel King is the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3. Follow him on Twitter: @SamuelKingNews