A condemned building at 4401 E. Ninth St. was set for demolition, but then the Lykins Neighborhood Association and Neighborhood Legal Support of Kansas City saved it. 

Using Missouri’s Abandoned Housing Act, the neighborhood association took control of the home from an absentee, out-of-state owner and used a local rehabber to renovate the four-bed-three-bath, 2,600-square-foot home. 

What was an eyesore now shines as a success story, and it’s not alone. 

The Lykins neighborhood — a triangle-shaped neighborhood bordered by Benton to the west, Independence Ave to the north, Hardesty to the east, then diagonally as the  railroad track as its southern border  — began this work in 2018, and by the end of 2024, there won’t be any abandoned & blighted properties left in the neighborhood. 

Lykins Neighborhood Association President Greg Lombardi headed the effort, and over five years, they have taken control of 148 blighted and abandoned homes. If all goes according to plan, the renovations will be complete by the end of next year.

“We pretty much ran out of abandoned houses [to acquire] in the neighborhood last summer,” says Lombardi.

Originally, the idea was to focus resources in a small nine-block space; when that phase was done, they expanded to 30 blocks, then the whole neighborhood. 

The Lykins Focused Community Development Project has been so successful at eliminating blight that the neighborhood association instituted a bounty program. If a neighbor could identify a blighted and abandoned house that had been missed, the neighborhood association would give them $100 for the tip. 

Violent crime in Lykins is down by 35% over the past three years. Lombardi says that although many factors influence crime statistics, he believes that the substantial reduction of blight in Lykins is one of the primary causes.

Jannetta Garrett-Combs bought one of the properties built by Habitat for Humanity as part of the Lykins redevelopment project last year and loves her house. The project took an empty, abandoned lot and made it into a liveable and affordable home.  

She’s lived in KC’s northeast her whole life and says that while the neighborhood still has challenges, she’s been impressed by the development.  

“I was born and raised around here in some of the public housing on the northeast end, so seeing what they are doing to it today is amazing,” says Garrett-Combs. 

Garrett-Combs says that she’s noticing more people moving in, seeing more children, and says the neighborhood is changing for the better and that she’s excited to see what the new neighbors bring. 

The affordable home Garrett-Combs lives in was built during the early phases of the Lykins Focused Community Development Project, which was recognized in 2020 by the American Planners Association with the Outstanding Community Planning Initiative Award for the State of Missouri.

How the Lykins Project Works

There are a lot of moving parts to the model. Nonprofits like the Neighborhood Legal Support of Kansas City and Legal Aid of Western Missouri largely handle legal work. 

The Lykins Neighborhood Association facilitates community involvement every step of the way. Importantly, neighborhood associations have the legal right to assume possession of abandoned properties under the Missouri Abandoned Housing Act. 

“It’s very much a neighborhood-involved process, and we use as many collaborators as we can,” says Lombardi. 

The process works like this:

  • Identify homes that have been vacant for at least 180 days, are in a state of disrepair, and are a nuisance or hazard to the health or safety of the community. 
  • Contact the owner to renovate or sell the property to a qualified rehabber. 
  • If the property owner is unresponsive or unwilling to bring the building up to code, the neighborhood association can sue for possession of the property using the Missouri Abandoned Housing Act.
  • Once in possession of the property, the neighborhood association reviews applications of rehabbers.
  • With community input, the neighborhood association selects a rehabber’s plans for a property on a case-by-case basis.
  • The rehabber then must contractually finish renovations. 

In Lykins, they’ve gone out of their way to ensure this program doesn’t lead to displacement. 

Lombardi says if a home is merely blighted but occupied, they connect the homeowner with support services like the nonprofit Jerusalem Farms to help get the home up to code. When working with at-risk families, Jerusalem Farms can often fix issues like roofing for free.

Lykins has an average household income of $25,000 and houses a substantial refugee & immigrant population. That, when paired with a location near downtown, means that gentrification is a concern that the neighborhood must deal with. 

To combat gentrification, the neighborhood decides who rehabs which properties and how they’ll be used. Lombardi says that a third of the houses are renovated and sold at market rate, while the rest are renovated by preferred rehabbers like Habitat for Humanity and the Northeast Neighborhood Trust that ensure affordable housing. 

The result is a mixed-income community that most urban planners consider ideal for a neighborhood. 

“The idea is to empower the neighborhood all along through the process. Let them have the vision of how they want the neighborhood developed,” says Lombardi.

Can It Be Replicated? 

Lykins is something of a special case because of Greg Lombardi. He’s a Lykins resident, former executive director of Legal Aid of Western Missouri, the current executive director at Neighborhood Legal Support of Kansas City, and president of the Lykins Neighborhood Association. 

In short, Lombardi knew how to utilize disparate laws and support services to help take abandoned properties and turn them into safe, livable homes. Luckily, he’s not keeping it a secret. Through Neighborhood Legal Support, he and others are collaborating with other KC neighborhoods to try and replicate the Lykins model. 

The Independence Plaza neighborhood bordering Lykins is in the early stages of its community-focused development project; as is the Oak Park neighborhood, which sits between Prospect and Jackson Ave, from 31st Street south to Cleaver Blvd.

“I think it’s a great idea to repeat this throughout the city, and we’re really working on it,” says Lombardi. “It just takes a committed neighborhood association and a little bit of resources.”

Cynthia Herrington, president of the Independence Plaza Neighborhood Association, says their biggest challenge in replicating the Lykins model is staffing and funding. The neighborhood association has started working with Legal Aid of Western Missouri and Neighborhood Legal Support KC on several homes.  

“If Legal Aid and Greg [Lombardi] hadn’t come to us, I wouldn’t even have known where to start,” says Herrington. “But we’re trying it and trying to keep it small enough and local enough that some of those dollars are staying in the community.”

Neighborhood Legal Support (NLS) is a nonprofit organization that was formed to assist the Lykins Neighborhood Association in the focused community development project. Most neighborhood associations are run by volunteers and often in their very sparse spare time, and navigating the Abandoned Housing Act can be a complex process, so it is crucial to have legal support, which costs time and money. 

Forrest Tyson Jr., vice president of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association, says that Legal Aid and NLS have helped them identify properties and begin eliminating blighted and abandoned houses in his neighborhood.

“The main focus right now is looking for absentee landowners that live in Timbuktu somewhere while the property is just sitting there. It’s only a piece of paper to them,” says Tyson. 

The Lykins Focused Community Project has the neighborhood select rehabbers and Habitat for Humanity is often their preference, pictured here building a home in Lykins.

Dollars & Sense

The city has cooperated with Lykins on getting certain exceptions to expedite the process of rehabbing homes and has given grants to NLS. Still, Tyson wonders why the city isn’t involved more in housing development. 

“Why doesn’t the city treat housing like other capital improvement projects,” says Tyson. “Roads, sidewalks, sanitation, schools, sewers, and stormwater are all city projects, so why not housing?”

Tyson says the city loses out by not having enough housing available to the tune of billions of tax dollars. He says the city has the staff, credit, and possession of properties through the land bank, so he’d like to see them more involved. 

Herrington and Lombardi believe that the city should at least pitch in to fund a neighborhood association staff person to manage redevelopment projects. 

“I mean, the frustration on my part is that we’re doing work that the city should be supporting us with,” says Herrington. 

Tyson, who also owns a construction company, says each home demolition costs the city between $5,000 and $7,000, which they try, but often fail, to recoup from the original owner or through the sale of the property. 

Lombardi argues that if the city instead paid a staff person within the neighborhood association to rehab abandoned and blighted homes, it would save money. 

“We should be rehabbing every single abandoned house before building new ones. It’s much more cost-efficient and sustainable,” says Lombardi. “We save the city a bunch of money in demolition, and crime goes down; it’s a win for everybody.”

Lombardi sees rehabbing older homes as a key to creating affordable housing. Rehabbing a home that’s been blighted and abandoned can cost between $50,000 and $100,000. Lombardi says the home would still qualify as an affordable house even if a developer/rehabber sells it for a reasonable profit. 

The Lykins neighborhood began this work in 2018, and by the end of 2024, there won’t be any abandoned & blighted properties left in the neighborhood.

Not a One-Size-Fits-All Model

To replicate the success of the Lykins targeted redevelopment project, neighborhoods would need to decide what’s best for them, as no model is one-size-fits-all. For example, Tyson would like to see more new builds in Oak Park but welcomes any positive change to his neighborhood.

“There’s no place to go but up,” says Tyson. “There are very few blocks that are stable; Oak Park is basically 227 blocks of blight.” 

With the support of targeted resources, staff, and a motivated neighborhood association Lykins eliminated abandoned and blighted houses, showing that despite challenges, it can be done. 

“My goal is that 10 years from now, there will be no more blighted and abandoned houses in Kansas City,” says Lombardi.

Given Kansas City’s affordable housing issues, it sure would be nice to solve one problem with another. 

Directly across from Lykins Square Park & splash park is the Lykins Community Center, where the neighborhood association meets.