By Matthew Kelly | The Wichita Eagle
Wichitans have had it with overgrown weeds, garbage-laden yards and dilapidated houses.
Code enforcement scored the lowest — 24% approval — of all city services included in Wichita’s 2022 resident survey.
The proposed 2024-2025 city budget aims to boost enforcement efforts, with an additional $112,000 for nuisance abatement next year and an extra $100,000 for the demolition of structures deemed dangerous and unsafe.
“We are seeing an increase in nuisance conditions and blight in some areas,” said Chris Labrum, director of the Metropolitan Area Building and Construction Department, which is responsible for inspections, notifying property owners of violations and bidding out work to contractors when owners fail to make fixes on their own.
“We have consistently gotten requests from neighborhood associations and neighbors to do more with and be more aggressive with those properties,” Labrum said.
Janet Radig, president of the McAdams Neighborhood Association in northeast Wichita, said she wants to see problem houses in her neighborhood dealt with quicker.
“There is a lot of dilapidated housing and people not doing what they need to do, landlords not doing what they need to do,” Radig said.
Depending on the level of nuisance, a property owner will be given anywhere from seven to 30 days to take care of the problem or show enough progress to be given more time. MABCD data shows that the voluntary compliance rate is 87%.
But some of the roughly 10,000 cases MABCD deals with annually wind up in court, prolonging the timeline as the department seeks an order to gain entry for an inspection or abatement.
“A lot of their problem is dealing with the way the laws are set up,” said Chad Roush, president of the South Area Neighborhood Association. “With all of these out-of-state owners, it’s hard to get people to remediate stuff and it gets tied up in court forever before they can do anything.
“I agree that property rights should be there, but there’s got to be some way to keep moving things along if they’re not going to get compliant.”
Labrum said he’s worked in recent years to remove as many administrative slowdowns as possible, and that additional resources will help his department act quicker to inspect nuisances and enact fixes when necessary.
Mike Hoheisel, who represents south Wichita’s District 3 on the City Council, said he hears almost daily from residents about health, safety and property value concerns related to nuisance houses.
“We have to have a budget to make sure we can clean that up,” Hoheisel said. “We just blow through these budgets to where we’re having to find money elsewhere at the end of the year to help cover some of these issues that we’re facing. I think it’s wholly appropriate that we just go ahead and allocate more resources on the front end.”
City Manager Robert Layton will present next year’s budget proposal to the City Council on Tuesday. A series of public budget hearings will be held before it is adopted.
CONCERNS ABOUT BLIGHT, VACANT HOUSES
Fire damage to vacant houses, often caused by squatters trying to keep warm during the winter months, has become a persistent problem in recent years, Labrum said.
“We do an emergency demo if we have a situation where a structure, generally residential, is damaged to the point that it is immediately dangerous and we don’t have an engaged owner and any level of confidence that they’ll take care of it immediately,” Labrum said.
All demolitions of structures determined to be dangerous must ultimately be approved by the City Council.
By retired developer John Todd’s assessment, inspectors are far too quick to recommend demolition in non-emergency cases.
“Real estate is more than bricks and mortar. It involves people and the situations they find themselves in as property owners,” Todd told The Eagle.
“Bulldozing houses and leaving vacant lots that draw trash and weeds and landowners that have $8,000 to $10,000 bulldozing fees against them is certainly not the solution.”
He said what property owners need is to be connected with resources, including attorneys who can help handle estates when relatives leave behind houses without a will, and programs like the Federal Housing Administration’s Limited 203(k) Mortgage program, which can be used to finance up to $35,000 in home repairs and improvements.
“If mom and dad are in a house basically and die and you don’t want to own it — you live out of town — a lot of people have no idea that the house that’s got weeds and trash around it might be worth $10,000, $20,000, $30,000,” Todd said.
Hoheisel said owners must be given a fair chance to bring their properties back into compliance before administrative action is taken against their will.
“We don’t want to crack down on anybody,” Hoheisel said. “We want to give them every opportunity to take care of this.
“I’m just scared of the day that I get a call of a firefighter being injured or even killed going out to a fire that could have been prevented by us making sure that the places are boarded up and that we stay on people with regard to taking care of their property.”
Labrum said it takes community buy-in to keep neighborhoods safe and appealing.
“The broken window theory — when we keep blight to a minimum, the better we can do with keeping neighborhoods clean, up to code, the less likely they are to slip into higher levels of decline and crime,” he said.
This article was republished here with the permission of: The Wichita Eagle