KS Rep Gail Finney lives in and represents an inner-city community on Wichita’s Northeast side, and she’s aware there’s a problems with abandoned houses in her community. No matter what direction she drives in her community, she doesn’t have to go far before she sees an abandoned and/or boarded up house. Still she was one of six (out of seven) Black Democrats in the Kansas Legislature who opposed a bill introduced last year to allow non-profit organizations to petition the courts to take over “abandoned” houses, rehabilitate them and take ownership without any compensation to the owners.

Last year, Senate Bill 338 passed the legislature, but was vetoed by Gov. Sam Brownback after complaints with the process were voiced by many inner-city residents and those Black legislators who represent them. This year the bill has been reintroduced in the Kansas Senate, with a few minor changes. The State’s two major urban governments – the Kansas City Unified Government and the City of Wichita — are hopeful this year, the bill will pass with the support of the Black Caucus. Otherwise, Gov. Brownback may once again choose to turn the bill back.

Senator David Haley (D-KC) wants to make it clear he in no way opposes cities acquiring blighted properties and improving them: “I don’t want anyone to feel for a moment that David Haley is insensitive to the needs to streamline putting some of these houses that could be saved into good hands.” He is not opposed to revitalization; he is opposed to local governments acquiring properties without fairly compensating the owners.

Discussing his opposition to last year’s bill, Senator Haley said SB 338 was a “heavy-handed attempt … to steal marginal real property from fragile owners, give these properties to a not-for-profit entity, and let the not-for-profit entity fix it up and flip it for a profit.” This, he added, is essentially using eminent domain without compensating the owners. Eminent domain grants local governments the authority to acquire private property for public use, but when used, governments are required to compensate the property owners.

Senate Bill 31, introduced this year, is strikingly similar to SB 338 that passed last year. Under both bill, a non-profit organization can petition the court to rehabilitate a property deemed abandoned. The court petition must include a plan to rehabilitate the property and there is a strict requirement to try to identify and notify individual(s) who have an ownership interest in the property and give them time to respond to the petition. If the court approves the rehabilitation plan, the non-profit will be given temporary possession of the property and between 365 and 730 days to rehabilitate the property in accordance with the submitted plan.

Once the property is rehabilitated, but not less than 365 days, the non-profit can file to get a “quiet title” to the property. In the end, the community will have a greatly renovated property, instead of a boarded up eye soar, but the original owner would have received nothing.

If, as Senator Haley says, “there are sufficient safeguards in place to protect a marginal property owner from government abuse,” he might support SB 31. He points out that eminent domain contains safeguards protecting property owners’ rights, and he wants to see similar safeguards in SB 31. The bill’s supporters say they have included safeguards.

Rep. Finney, who is in the house, says she’s not necessarily familiar with this year’s version of the bill, but has the same concerns she had last year with protecting the property owner’s rights. Sb 338, allowed for a house to be considered abandoned after just 12 months. SB 31 extends that timeframe to 15 months, but Finney isn’t sure if that’s long enough to satisfy her. Current state law requires properties to be abandoned for 24 months before a City can move to condemn them. 

“An individual may be in a nursing home or temporarily incarcerated,” says Finney. “I’m concerned that someone that may have had a hiccup in their life, that their property would be seized or forfeited before they had time to respond.”

However for officials with the Wyandotte Unified Government, where there are more than 3,500 abandoned houses, the shorter timeframe allows them to get the property off their roles, and out of the tax payer’s pocket, in a much more expeditious manner. Last month, the Wyandotte Unified Government launched an initiative to make their city safer, healthier, more desirable, and better looking. The passage of SB31 will help expedite the UG’s announced initiative to renovate 10,000 properties by 2021.

The League of Kansas Municipalities, which advocates on behalf of cities throughout the state, does not know what fiscal effect SB 31 would have on Kansas cities because it does not know how many cities will aggressively pursue abandoned properties. The League does believe, however, that SB 31 could reduce the amount of taxpayer dollars spent on maintaining abandoned properties, since these properties would be eligible for acquisition after 15 months instead of 24, which cuts the amount of time and money governments must spend maintaining the property, i.e. cutting the grass and making sure the houses are secure.

Senator Haley’s goal is to streamline the process of acquiring abandoned properties while looking out for those who, as he says, “are truly not being spoken for.” He added that if local governments attempt to locate owners of blighted properties but no one comes forth and claims them, he—emphasizing this is his opinion alone—is “open to anything—changing the timetable [for] how long it’s been sitting. I’m okay then. If no one’s speaking up for the property.”

If this is something that concerns you, call your legislator in Topeka, toll free at 1-800-432-3924.

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