The 64128 ZIP Code is the eighth most vacant ZIP Code in the nation. It also has very low owner occupancy rates, meaning a majority of people are renting and therefore vulnerable to being displaced as property values appreciate. Recently, Jackson County has seen increases of nearly 37% of property values, increases which target the communities that are least equipped to tolerate that financial pressure. People in those neighborhoods cannot afford a new build, and so new builds are raising property taxes and displacing the people who are renting.
Ajia Morris is the founder and founding executive director for the Greenline Foundation, a nonprofit which was established in 2021 to address many of the real estate, property value, and quality of life issues in Kansas City’s East Side. She and her husband also co-founded the Greenline Initiative, a for-profit organization which focuses on residential real estate development.
East Side Shuffle
What they realized before learning about 64128’s vacancy is that many of the vacant homes have vacant abandoned lots adjacent to them, so many that the city has a program where if they own a vacant lot next to a person’s home, that person can purchase the vacant lot for $75. “There is a very low entry point to community ownership of these lots in this land,” Morris said. The land bank also has over 1000 of these parcels available for sale for about $2-5000 each, which are just accumulating in the bank. A majority of these vacant lots are on Kansas City’s East Side. “If they were in a more valuable neighborhood, or ZIP Code, they would be purchased for new construction,” Morris said. “So how do we leverage this resource that we have on the East Side?”
In partnership with Local Code Kansas City and the Greenline Initiative, the Greenline Foundation sources funds to purchase those lots and keep the green space alive on the East Side to help keep temperatures down. Because of the density, and the fact that Highway 71 is right between the East Side of Kansas City, there is an increase in heat, chemicals, and the likelihood of asthmatic flare-ups and medical flare-ups related to being so close to a highway.
“There are many negatives associated with a highway running down the middle of your neighborhood,” Morris explained. To counteract that, while the green space is healthy and healing for the community to have an activated place to go outside, it is also healthy environmentally to keep it green to counteract some of the effects of the highway running down the middle of the community.
Much of the vacancy in 64128 comes from mismanagement of contracts and ownership in secession. When property taxes go up, they often go unpaid because, for example, a grandmother passed and left the house to four children and nobody pays the taxes. The taxes go unpaid for three years, the city takes the house for the amount the taxes are worth, and the city will sell that house and put out the family. “That’s basically what happens to a lot of people in my neighborhood because they aren’t necessarily aware of what’s happening, kind of like on the west side when prices go up,” Morris said.
Some people own their house, but the property taxes will be too much for them to pay on the year. Morris said this increase has impacted the elderly population that is on a fixed income the most. It impacts the elderly and it impacts those who are unaware of their tax situation and incapable of paying for it. When a property tax goes up, property taxes increase, a process which occurs because of gentrification. “My neighbors aren’t necessarily able to protest, to appeal, so this will happen to them,” Morris said.
Pediatric Housing Insecurity and Children’s Mercy
The Greenline Initiative and Greenline Foundation are also working together on a partnership with Children’s Mercy’s Hospitals to support families that have pediatric housing insecurity, meaning they have a child that has medical frailty and they are facing housing insecurity. They have partnered with Children’s Mercy to sponsor in part and owner finance for them, as in holding the mortgage on their dreams of homeownership. It works like this: Greenline identifies vacant homes in Kansas City’s East Side, Children’s Mercy identifies families who are renting and have medically fragile children who are housing insecure through whatever programs they have, and, through a joint venture, the Foundation invests in the Greenline Initiative at a low interest loan. That helps with underwriting the mortgage and keeps it at previous rental rates for the person who moves in.
Drawing the Line
Redlining is a huge factor in grossly inflated taxes, pediatric housing insecurity and overall blighted neighborhoods. It is a term that describes a metaphorical red line drawn around less desirable neighborhoods which determine property value assessments, appraisals, and who is shepherded into what communities. Blockbusting happens as a result of redlining. When neighborhoods were redlined and people were driven into those neighborhoods, blockbusting was the process of moving in Black or brown or other families stigmatized by social norms into a community, causing property values to depreciate and expediting white flight.
JC Nichols is often credited as the father of redlining. Nichols is the one who defined Troost as the city’s racial dividing line, putting all of the neighborhoods that he was going to develop as a real estate broker west of Troost. “So you put all those things together, it’s a recipe for underappreciated communities, undervalued property values and communities,” Morris said. The houses east of Troost prior to redlining were built just like the houses west of Troost because they were all white, since Black and brown families were north of the river or in the West Bottoms.
As the railroads and traffic increased through Kansas City, which is one of the only cities whose trains travel both east to west and north to south in America, so did the need for service workers. Those underpaid low wage jobs were effectively reserved for the Black and brown population. As these people grew out of the West Bottoms, they were redlined and moved over east of Troost because JC Nichols planned for west of Troost to be the idyllic white neighborhoods that he had envisioned.
Redlining and blockbusting and restrictive covenants are the reasons that the city owns all of those properties. White flight, amid other things, left the East Side depleted of resources. When the people who had the most money left, so did the businesses and the support from property taxes. Morris said that was the impetus for the Foundation, because housing is the single largest way to create generational wealth. Prices are suppressed on the East Side due to the blight that has been placed on the community. “How do we leverage that for the people who live here?” Morris said. “This is how we leverage that for the people who live here, by claiming it since it’s at a reduced value and then turning it into something that’s valuable for us as a neighborhood.”
There is also a large aging population on the East Side, which is a problem because people are being discouraged from aging in place. As homes age and need updates and repairs, the fact that those homes appraise as significantly less than identical homes west of Troost means that lines of credit to do maintenance and upkeep on homes are harder to come by, and it makes the senior living facilities more attractive. That is another common way that houses become vacant.
“You sign over your home to HUD for Medicaid. You can live in a senior living facility for free, but your family just lost the generational wealth of a home that was mostly paid off,” Morris explained. “There are a lot of ways you can call out how the system takes away from people. It’s just finding the ways the system is said to be intended to give back and leveraging those for the people who need it.”
The Path Forward
Thus, Greenline’s plan is to buy lots for the land bank or the city at very low cost, talk to the community about what they want there, and then raise the money to put it there: using the ways the system is theoretically supposed to ‘give back’ to the community and ensuring it actually does so.
Each time a single mother becomes a homeowner, that increases the likelihood of her child graduating from high school, decreases the likelihood of them committing crime, and decreases the likelihood of crime happening in that neighborhood. “A vacant house versus an occupied house shows vitality in a neighborhood,” Morris said. “It’s super meaningful because there’s nothing wrong with what we have.”
Greenline is a social enterprise. “With the Greenline Initiative, the give-back is that we keep your mortgage at the same rate your rent was, and so they don’t mark up the homes. Instead of fixing and flipping, we fix and flip, but keep it at an appropriate price to where we aren’t maximizing our profit, we’re maximizing our give-back to the community,” Morris said. They want the community to own the land that they occupy because they often find that people will buy these lots and squat on them, since at some point, as gentrification is rapidly occurring in their neighborhoods, people will want to purchase those lots and build homes on them.
Renovations activate the site, which is an act of neighborhood preservation, decrease blight, and increase value and sense of worth in the community. “It’ll bring people together,” Morris said. “I say that about the blight because every lot that we buy is vacant and overgrown. We’re very intentional about starting with a very bad piece of material and turning it into its highest use.” By engaging the community prior to doing the work, Greenline hopes to engage them as they do the work and incorporate them. “We’re looking at being intentional about creating an environment that fosters community, that builds the ecosystem, and it strengthens the bonds that we have, because our community already works together. Everybody’s on board when we talk about what we can do with these vacant lots. It’s just about actually doing it.”
Positioning for a ‘New’ Northeast
Greenline has hosted a block party and clean-up where there was an art installation put on one lot, but they have not yet gone through what they envision the process being of renovating a lot and turning it into what the community wants. They plan on canvassing the area around the lot targeted for renovation and introducing themselves to the neighbors to make sure that the community knows that this lot is going to be activated for them, in addition to sharing some visions that they may have for that lot space and asking what they might like to see there.
After canvassing and doing a micro community needs assessment, Greenline raises the funds to put in place what the community wants. “The neighborhood doesn’t really want more community gardens,” Morris said. “We know how to garden and we have nice-sized yards in this neighborhood. We want something a little bit more interactive. Less backbreaking, if that makes sense.” Greenline prioritizes the community’s wants and needs before deciding what to do with plots.
“It is people who have resources, who more often than not don’t come from this community, that come in and change it, but along with the changing of the home and moving in come with expectations and sort of a cultural shift and property value shifts that displace people who can’t afford to live elsewhere,” Morris said. Their neighborhoods are becoming desirable due to proximity to amenities as Kansas City grows.
This fact is drawing people who have resources back in from the suburbs, who often present themselves as if they are frontier people. “There was one guy who was in an article who said that he was coming in sort of like the wild west,” Morris said, “but it was ‘good, because he was comfortable in diverse communities and situations.’ And so my neighborhood is the new Northeast, and recognizing that, I want to help as many people as possible stay here, if that’s what they want to do.”
How to Help
Aside from donating to the Greenline Foundation, volunteering is the best way to help out. Volunteering could mean ideas, because they are always looking for ideas for the vacant lots and their repurposing; it could mean time, as they go out and turn these lots into spaces; it could mean skills and talents, for carpenters or contractors; or support, because Greenline wants to make their work self-sustaining and bring on people who have the bandwidth to get everything done.
To learn more about the Greenline Foundation, visit https://www.greenlinefoundation.org/.