Governor’s veto today may not put an end to the controversy

In a rare instance of a split in the Kansas Black Legislative Caucus, the delegation members came down solidly on two different sides of a bill. Senate Bill 338 would make it easier for local governments to take abandoned property from owners and outlines a process for turning the property over to a nonprofit agency for rehabilitation. 

The bill is an attempt to solve a problem of homes remaining abandoned for years before action can be taken to remove or improve them.  SB338 would expedite the process of taking a home away from the owner if the property is unoccupied for a year and is blighted.  Under the bill, non-profit organizations can petition to rehab the property and after successfully rehabbing the home, the nonprofits can take “quiet title” to property, with the property owner receiving nothing. 

The bill was pushed in the legislature by the Kansas League of Cities and Wichita City Commissioner Lavonta Williams wrote a letter to the editor in Wichita Eagle supporting the measure.  Wichita Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau supported the bill.  However, Kansas Senator David Haley, Ks. Reps Gail Finney (D- Wichita), Roderick Houston (D-Wichita), Benn Scott (D-Topeka) Broderick Henderson (D-Kansas City) and Valdenia Winn (D-Kansas City) all voted against the bill. 

After debate on the bill in the House on March 23, the above representatives filed a statement in the house journal expressing their adamant opposition to the bill. 

 “SB 338 circumvents our current eminent domain statutes by redefining ‘abandoned property’ and by allowing our local governments to expeditiously confiscate, seize or destroy law abiding citizens’ private property without compensation, adequate notice, and a legal property title. This is an egregious overreach that deprives some citizens of their private property rights without sufficient due process and it will cause irreparable harm to our most vulnerable citizens that do not have the resources to protect their property.”

Currently, houses can be sold through tax sales if the property taxes remain unpaid for three years.  SB338 significantly shortens the time it would take for cities to declare a house abandoned.  As proposed, a house could be declared abandoned if it remains vacant for 90-days and is 2-years in arrears in their property taxes or if the property is vacant for 365 days.  

“They’re not giving property owners enough time,” Rep. Finney told The Community Voice.  “That’s why we’re fighting against it.”  

You could be in jail or a nursing home for 90 days, Finney continued.  

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback obviously agreed with the legislatures and on Monday vetoed the bill.

“Government should protect property rights and ensure the less advantaged are not denied the liberty to which every citizen is entitled.  Governmental authority to take property from one private citizen and give it to another private citizen should be limited, but this bill would have the effect of expanding such authority without adequate safeguards. The potential for abuse of this new statutory process cannot be ignored,” wrote Brownback in his veto statement. 

Brownback says citizens from across the political spectrum contacted him to discuss their concerns that the bill would disparately impact low income and minority neighborhoods.   When you look at the areas most affected by this bill, it often would be poor minority areas of cities.

The governor’s veto may not mean an end to the bill.  The members of the house and the senate may vote to override the governor’s veto during the wrap up session later this month. 

The bill overwhelming passed the Kansas Sen (32-8) but thanks to some convincing testimony by urban representatives, including Rep. Finney, the bill passed the house 77 to 44. 

“It would take 84 votes to get it overridden in the House,” says Finney.  “I was able to convince a lot of people to oppose the bill and based on my conversations with them, I think it may be difficult to get the votes to override the veto in the house.” 

During debate on the bill, one representative vocalized what many have wondered – why are communities not trying more positive ways to help homeowners who have blighted property, such as organizing volunteer groups to go out, clean them up and leave the property with the owners, rather than negative approach of seizing the property?

Williams says processes like that are already in place in Wichita.  The community helps connect homeowners with available resources like Love Wichita, a program that provides free labor and supplies to help rehabilitate a limited number of homes. 

“This bill is not a push to take anyone’s house or land. It is a tool to accomplish rehabilitation, while protecting property rights,” wrote Williams. 

In an effort to correct some misinformation Williams wrote, “The city of Wichita has not bulldozed hundreds of houses for housing code violations over the past few years. In fact, the city only demolishes a house as a last resort, averaging only 13 per year in the past four years – a little more than one per month.”

This is an exorbitantly slow pace considering the number of “neglected properties” in Wichita (165).  According to the Topeka Capital Journal, there are 700 abandoned houses on the list waiting for demolition.  However with just for $400,000 in Topeka’s 2016 budget for demolishing abandoned houses, only 40 houses can be demolished. 

With the governor’s veto, it appears Kansas municipalities still lack a way to adequately address what is obviously a growing problem, enter city blight.  Unless, the legislature overrides his veto.  Stay tuned. 

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