Since a series of missteps and questionable practices led to the previously unreported ouster of its former executive director, critics say the city agency’s board doesn’t seem all that interested in putting the thousands of properties it owns to productive use and back on the tax rolls.
As a result, large swaths of the city’s poorest neighborhoods remain riddled with eyesores that belong to either the Land Bank or its sister agency, the Kansas City Homesteading Authority, far and away the biggest property owners east of Troost Avenue.
“They’re trapping us in blight,” said Rashid Junaid, president of an East Side neighborhood association.
This past summer, Junaid and other Foxtown East residents wanted to buy four of the Land Bank’s vacant lots and turn them into a park. But the board wouldn’t sell despite the fact that the neighborhood had financial backing and support from the Health Forward Foundation and the Heartland Conservation Alliance.
So broken bags of garbage continue to collect and rot on the parcels east of Cleveland Avenue along 69th Terrace.
“I’m pissed,” Jill Erickson, Heartland’s executive director, said after the meeting in which the offer was rejected. The Land Bank “could be a solution. Instead, it’s like everything else at the city of Kansas City. It’s like this great idea, you know, and falls apart. The wheels fall off a bit when you try to put it into action.”
The Star spoke with dozens of neighborhood leaders, local officials, community activists and others who have done business or lodged complaints with the Land Bank.
All criticized the agency for never following through on a strategy for returning to the tax rolls the thousands of residential, commercial and industrial properties it owns.
The Star also found that, for those properties it did sell, the Land Bank has no idea how many buyers failed to keep their promises to build or rehab houses or just improve the land. Nor does it know whether buyers are even paying taxes on the properties the city sold them, its current executive director admits.
The Land Bank has rarely attempted to reclaim its former properties when owners fail to keep their promises and pay their taxes. Court records reflect only about a dozen foreclosure actions, all of them in the past year or two.
“So all over the East Side, there are properties that are privately owned by people who bought them out of Land Bank and had no intention — they just wanted to speculate on it,” said Colleen Hernandez, an affordable-housing consultant and former head of the Kansas City Neighborhood Alliance.
Where only a few years ago the Land Bank might sell dozens of properties each month, the current board has sold fewer than two dozen in all of 2021 and doesn’t interact much with the public.
At its July meeting, the board rejected 31 of the 33 purchase offers without explanation beyond a rote recitation that they were deemed insufficient, the commissioners felt the buyer didn’t have the resources to carry through with their plan, or both.
“This is not an agency that is interested in selling properties, it’s more interested in regulating who gets them and under what circumstances,” development lawyer and former city councilman Mark Bryant told The Star after an offer from him and his partners at Onyx Development Corp. was rejected at a recent Land Bank meeting.
The non-profit that Bryant, barbecue baron Ollie Gates and former Research Medical Center public affairs director Will McCarther operate wanted to add to their holdings around the 4900 block of Montgall Avenue by buying eight Land Bank lots at a deep discount to potentially build an assisted living center.
Onyx offered a few hundred dollars per lot. The Land Bank wanted a few thousand or more, because the properties’ market values for tax purposes recently quadrupled.
Lecturing the board, Bryant said it was wrongheaded to reject the offer when no one else has been interested in buying the lots since they became part of the Land Bank portfolio four years ago.
He finds it absurd that the Land Bank won’t sell the land to a willing buyer when no one else wants it.
“They are approaching it more as a regulatory matter rather than as an entrepreneurial matter in getting these properties into the hands of the public so that they can be developed and pay taxes,” he said. “And I’m sorry, but they are just failing miserably.”
Land Bank officials declined to comment about those concerns.
Created less than a decade ago, the city agency was supposed to be part of the solution to urban blight — increasing home ownership and putting property back on the tax rolls, mainly in eroding neighborhoods on the city’s predominantly Black East Side.
“Rebuilding vibrant communities one property at a time” has been the Land Bank’s slogan since its inception.
But critics say that no longer rings true. The Land Bank seems more interested in maximizing the sales price it gets for its properties than working with neighborhood organizations to find the best use for them.
“People who work there just don’t get it,” said the Rev. Antoine Lee, chairman of the Historic East Neighborhoods Coalition. “They have a very myopic understanding of neighborhoods and community.”
And because the Land Bank is less willing to work closely with those neighborhood leaders, “the community suffers,” Lee said.
History of questionable deals
To understand why the Land Bank seems so reluctant to part with properties when it once sold hundreds every year, meet Ted Anderson.
A gregarious real estate lawyer and city hall veteran, he was the agency’s executive director during its formative years and was willing to try almost anything to get properties off the city’s books. The properties, in such bad shape or seemingly useless that no one wanted them, had gone unsold at the annual tax sale on the steps of the courthouse.
“Ted was a fire-sale kind of guy,” one frequent Land Bank customer recalled.
Concerned that it was taking too long to get rid of all the abandoned properties the Land Bank had to maintain, Anderson convinced the Land Bank’s board members to start selling houses and vacant lots in bulk at rock-bottom prices by granting purchase options to potential buyers.
Anderson helped neighborhood groups reserve hundreds of Land Bank lots for future development. He worked with a veterans group to set up a Tiny House village.
But under his leadership, the new agency also cut corners and took chances it probably shouldn’t have, failing to adequately vet prospective buyers, The Star found in its investigation.
One of the more extraordinary deals involved the family of Jackson County executive and former Royals great Frank White.
A company formed by three of White’s stepsons with the help of his wife, Teresa White, was granted an option in 2018 to buy three-dozen vacant Land Bank lots in the Washington Wheatley neighborhood near Kansas City’s burgeoning downtown.
That was far more lots than normally sold at one time and the low price was practically unheard of: $100 each for 37 parcels on Montgall and Kansas avenues, according to a document obtained through an open records request.
“There’s no way!” Marlon Hammons, Washington Wheatley neighborhood association president, said when informed of the purchase price. “That would be highway robbery.”
Property records had them on the books worth 10 times the price, and they are even more valuable now, according to the county assessment department.
Yet Anderson denies that favoritism for the family of the Democratic pol played a factor.
“We did the same thing for them that we did for just about anybody who wanted to put together a plan that the board would sign off on,” Anderson told The Star.
The White group promised to build 30 houses on those vacant properties in a part of town where so many old homes had been demolished. Under normal circumstances, if they failed to do that within a certain time frame, they would have had to give the land back. But this deal was different.
There is no deed of trust on file, city officials acknowledge. No strings were attached, which was highly unusual, The Star found as part of its investigation. If the project failed to materialize for whatever reason, they were entitled to sell some or all of that formerly taxpayer-owned land and pocket the profits.
And that is exactly what happened. No houses were built, and the company formed by Frank White’s stepsons Joseph, Darrel and Jordan Hurtt more than doubled its initial $3,700 investment by selling just four lots to a woman who lived near the properties on Montgall.
Speaking for the family, Teresa White wrote in an email:
“My sons felt they could make a difference and help revitalize the area,” she said. “They decided to purchase some of the vacant lots, clear out the trash and overgrown brush and make the area look nice. They have continued to maintain the lots and try to deter illegal activities and dumping.”
She did not say why no houses were built. Frank White declined to discuss the deal.
“This is her and her boys trying to make the Eastside of KC better by cleaning up empty lots,” he said in a text.
The deal with the Whites wasn’t the only one that raised questions.
The Land Bank also sold more than 40 vacant lots to another would-be developer a few months before the Whites cut their deal.
Through his company DC Capital and Investments LLC., Joshua Bowlin paid $75 apiece for 39 lots on which he promised to build houses and $200 each for three houses he promised to renovate in the Old Northeast.
And then he did neither.
Only, unlike the Whites, he did sign a document obligating him to give back the land if he reneged on his promises, and the Land Bank recently began pursuing foreclosure after pressure from the neighborhood and media inquiries. Bowlin did not respond to requests for comment.
His project initially had the neighborhood’s support.
“Our focus was to get rid of the empty lots that were attracting dumpers and things like that,” said Leslie Caplan, former president of the Scarritt Renaissance Neighborhood Association. “And at that time there was no limit on the number of lots you could get through the Land Bank.”
But there is now, because of deals like this one.
Business done in secret
Anderson was forced out in the fall of 2018. That spring, he’d sued the city for “reverse discrimination” when a Black woman was hired instead of him for a city job he wanted.
The suit was settled out of court that September after the city conducted an internal audit and investigation of Anderson’s dealings at the Land Bank, according to the settlement agreement obtained by The Star through an open records request.
The city agreed to pay Anderson and his lawyers just $7,500. They also agreed not to include “the results of any internal audit or investigation, or any recommendation for discipline” in his personnel file.
In exchange, Anderson agreed to drop his lawsuit, resign and never apply for a job at the city again.
Why was never explained. But public board minutes show that two days before Anderson signed the secret settlement, the board rejected the proposed sale of a large piece of commercial property “due to purchaser’s undisclosed business relationship with Land Bank staff.”
Anderson told The Star he did not have a business relationship with the man who wanted to buy the property while the deal was in the works, but had discussed working with him on future real estate deals.
City officials declined to release the audit and other documents referred to in the settlement, citing exemptions to the state’s Sunshine Law.
“He had to go,” said retired Kansas City assistant city manager John Wood. “I had to make the call because we found out some stuff that shouldn’t have been happening. It was just funky.”
Anderson denies any wrongdoing and said he was surprised at Wood’s characterization.
“I resigned and he signed my resignation, saying that I was leaving to pursue other opportunities,” Anderson said.
The board now does most of its business behind closed doors and policy discussions in public settings are rare. Last summer when the board revised its pricing policies to make land somewhat more affordable to non-profit and neighborhood groups, the decision and discussions around it were all done in secret.
Julie Anderson (no relation to Ted Anderson), one of three real estate attorneys on the five-member board this year, was chairwoman until she stepped down from the board recently. While chairing the board, she declined to comment on all Land Bank issues.
She further refused to discuss whether she considered it a conflict of interest to begin representing Bowlin on real estate matters a few weeks after she and the rest of the board voted to sell him the properties in Scarritt Point.
The Land Bank’s current executive director, Tracey Bryant, also declined an interview, but agreed to answer questions submitted in writing.
“No comment,” she wrote back when asked to discuss criticism that the Land Bank seems less interested today in returning properties to the tax rolls than producing revenue for the city.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
How we did this story
In order to provide a full account of the changes occurring in the neighborhoods on Kansas City’s East Side, The Star launched a months-long investigation that included an examination of a majority of the 208,000 parcels that make up Kansas City’s real estate landscape.
The project started with a central question: Who owns the East Side?
That question sent a team of reporters into the depths of city, county and state documents, multiple data sets, mapping, research reports and, of course, into people’s neighborhoods and lives.
On the East Side and elsewhere, The Star conducted more than 150 interviews with individuals whose time and openness we are grateful to have received and without whose help and candor this series would not be possible.
They include homeowners, renters, real estate agents, landlords, investors, house flippers, wholesalers, contractors, developers, housing advocates, East Side neighborhood groups, politicians, public officials, social scientists. Also of assistance were experts on race and development at institutions that include the University of Alabama, Rutgers University, Tulane University, Bard College, Princeton University, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the Mid-America Regional Council and Legal Aid of Western Missouri. Read more by clicking the arrow in the upper right.
How did the reporters analyze the property data?
The data mining began using information compiled by the city and made public on the site OpenDataKC. The data allowed The Star to identify by name and/or company the city’s largest real estate owners and to break that list down by the city’s six council districts.
Reporters then created physical maps charting the name and city, state and country of every owner of thousands of parcels in multiple neighborhoods on both the east and west sides of Troost.
Ownership, sales and purchase prices were checked through the Jackson County’s online property and tax records. Agents representing LLCs (limited liability companies) were identified through the office of the Missouri Secretary of State. Eviction cases were checked through Jackson County Circuit Court.
U.S. Census data was used to chart changes in rental rates and area racial makeup over time.
OpenDataKC was used to identify parcels held by The Land Bank of Kansas City. Other documents related to the internal workings of the organization were obtained through Missouri Sunshine Law requests.
Bryant did confirm that it cost taxpayers more than $1.1 million in 2020 to maintain the buildings and vacant lots in the Land Bank’s inventory. It cost another $171,000 to maintain homesteading authority properties.
“Those amounts include costs associated with mowing, trash collections, brush/limb collection, tire collections, bulky collect, and abatement,” she said in an email.
It’s never been enough, as the Land Bank’s neighbors often call City Hall to complain about upkeep.
According to city records, more than 500 complaints about Land Bank properties were logged between the first week of March and the first week of October.
Roughly half concerned things like illegal dumping and tall weeds.
It irks neighboring property owners that the Land Bank faces no penalties for property code violations.
“They have massive dumps all over the East Side,” said Christian Hankel, who paid the homesteading authority $500 in 2018 for 1.6 acres of woods behind his house in the 3600 block of Myrtle Avenue.
All across the East Side, you hear similar complaints about Land Bank properties that could be put to better use but aren’t.
What’s especially frustrating is the perception that the Land Bank seems to show no urgency at the moment in transferring ownership of those properties to people willing to take better care of them.
Monica Henderson is one of the many residents who find it in their best interests to mow and pick up the litter on Land Bank properties next to them. As long as she was taking care of the lot, she figured why not own it?
But in September, the single mother of two was saddened to see her offer rejected for the Land Bank lot next door to her home in the 2600 block of Benton Boulevard. Her plan to plant trees, install a pergola and a fire pit were deemed insufficient.
“I was basically told ‘we have enough gardens.’ So that wasn’t a good enough plan for the lot,” she said.
If the past is any guide, it might be a while before other proposals are deemed suitable. According to city records, the house that used to occupy that lot was boarded up as far back as 2007 and was demolished in January 2014.
Coming Tuesday: City Hall says it is serious about addressing East Side housing issues. Residents are skeptical.