Blanche Thomas wants neighbors. She has been living in the Ivanhoe neighborhood at 34th Street and Brooklyn Avenue in Kansas City, Mo., since 1956.
Back then, there was a grocery store and dry cleaners across the street. Houses stood on either side of hers. But now, the block looks different.
“It has changed 100 percent because in the block that I live in there are no houses,” Thomas says. “There are no people living on my block, only my son and I.”
The two apartment buildings across the street stand empty. Thomas bought the two lots on either side of her house.
Fifty years ago, the Ivanhoe neighborhood was a bustling community. Families filled up the houses that covered the area from Amour Boulevard to Emanuel Cleaver and Paseo to Prospect. But like many eastside neighborhoods, white-flight and urban decay gradually brought the area down.
After decades of blight, blocks like Thomas’ are common in Ivanhoe. Some investors and homebuyers are beginning to see these vacant homes as opportunities.
Despite difficulties with the lending process, Lisa Hummel and Neil Rudsill are two of those homebuyers that are making an investment that others aren’t willing to risk.
A couple of years ago, the couple bought two adjacent properties at the corner of 36th and Woodland just across Highway 71 from Thomas’ house. After learning about the community in Ivanhoe, they made the move east of Troost. Rudsill says that people have inaccurate perceptions and fears about this part of town.
“These neighborhoods, the Northeast, east of Troost neighborhoods, have a very diverse group of people in them,” Rudsill says. “That fear that we have of being around people that are different than us, that’s a real fear that people have.”
Rudsill and Hummel live in the corner house and grow vegetables on the property next to their home.
Rudsill showed me the unfinished second property next door that they plan on renting out. Lumber and old furniture crowd the worn wooden floors. The wallpaper has peeled off in big chunks and dust covers every surface. Through the rubble they have a vision of how the house could turn out.
But they quickly realized finding a renovation loan could be a challenge.
“Since they’re loaning you this money with equity of the property, they are very particular,” Hummel says. “It didn’t take long in that process before we realized that wasn’t going to allow us to get done the kinds of things we felt were very important to us.”
Most of their prospective lenders laid out a budget too low to make the costly infrastructure improvements. For example, they ended up spending much more on energy efficiency than the budget planned. They ended up increasing their energy efficiency by 78 percent.
To cover some of those extra costs, Hummel and Rudsill were able to lean upon their parents financially — not an option for many low- to moderate-income families.
Investing In The Urban Core
Ron Farmer with Credit and Homeownership Empowerment Services, Inc., a housing counseling non-profit, says lending has gotten tighter.
“Part of some of the new regulations have put some requirements in place that on one side it’s good that it makes certain that the loans are affordable for people on a continual basis,” Farmer says. “But it’s also made some of the requirements more stringent.”
Lee Pippins of Arvest Bank also works to encourage investment in the urban core. He says he advises people against putting more money into a house than it’s worth on the market.
“In fact, that’s one of the reasons why the market crashed earlier because we had speculations like that going on,” Pippins says.
But this is the kind of thinking that Hummel and Rudsill are fighting against.
They have been looking at banks to refinance before beginning their second property next door, and they hope their newly renovated home demonstrates that investments can be successful in a blighted neighborhood. But Rudsill says they are still struggling to show banks their next project's potential and obtain those necessary renovation loans.
“[Prospective lenders] came to the space, and a few of them didn’t even have the courage to get out of their cars and walk in the project to see what we have done," he says. "They would pull up and take pictures from the exterior and then drive away and then give us a sad letter that said, ‘Oh you know it just doesn’t seem like it’s going to work out on the open market. You don’t look like a sell. Sorry about that.’”
Fixing Homes, Stabilizing Communities
A couple of weeks ago, Kansas City Mayor Sly James joined potential homebuyers and neighbors at a housing fair sponsored by Momentum Properties Group between 35th and 36th on Brooklyn. Their mission is to stabilize the neighborhood by providing affordable, move-in ready homes for families.
David Larrabee an independent investor working with Momentum Properties said a neighborhood like Ivanhoe attracts speculators who are often more focused on money than quality improvement.
Steven Gher who runs Momentum Properties is trying to involve the community in renovating houses. For their model block project, he said he hired six neighbors.
The first finished home is a 5-bedroom listed at $69,000. Gher said homeowners would only have to pay $509 per month for the mortgage, taxes, insurance and interest for a house at that price.
“I bet if we walked this place, conversed with the people who are renting, they’re paying more than that,” Gher said.
Momentum Properties plans to work out from this block in concentric circles, fixing up houses.
Gher said that homeowners stabilize the neighborhood better than renters do. New residents like Hummel and Rudsill are examples of that, and they hope that more people will follow their lead and invest in the urban core.
This look at Kansas City's east side is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.
We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what's being done to bridge or dissolve them. Be a source for Beyond Our Borders: Share your perspective and experiences east of Troost Avenue with KCUR.