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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Locusts in a Neighborhood

I am following the progress of a new group in KC called: Emerald City KC: Blight to Bright: 52 Houses in 52 Weeks. You can find them on Face Book where they are gathering steam.

Emerald City is the brainchild of two women, one of whom is a realtor, to create an artist district within the Manheim neighborhood - Troost to Paseo, Cleaver to 39th. Their goal is to inhabit 52 houses in 52 weeks and to fill those houses with artists, urbanists, and other intentional living advocates who want to create a community. This sounds absolutely perfect for a blighted neighborhood that is close to the Plaza, but miles away in social terms.

One tiny issue that seems to be overlooked - there is a community already here - the Manheim neighborhood. There is no mention on their FB page about their coordination, collaboration, or even communication with this neighborhood. Brush Creek Community Partners has been working with this neighborhood to advance their interests. Don't have any idea if the Emerald City kids have talked to them either.

Basically, this is a group of locusts who have descended on Manheim and decided to make it their own. Their vision, notwithstanding, does not give them license to do this. Why 52 houses in 52 weeks - except that it is a catchy phrase? Why not 20 houses in 20 months?

Their sustainability plan (to go along with the Green Impact Zone in which this neighborhood sits) is to have a REIT (Real Estate Trust) to be a membership co-op for those who "buy-in" to the neighborhood and the Emerald City artist theme. Co-op is one approach. A REIT is not necessarily the best approach. I would prefer to see a Community Land Trust myself - but at least they are thinking about affordability and community ownership.

So far as I can tell, they are not a 501c3, but they want banks to donate housing to them as Wells Fargo has done with the Ivanhoe Neighborhood. Having been on the Ivanhoe Board of Directors, I can tell you that taking on housing is not for the faint of heart. It is very hard work to get housing in the urban core fixed up, rehabbed, and sold. The Emerald City group has been splashing about real estate finds and touting $400 mortgages.

As a property owner in the urban core who bought a foreclosed fixer-upper, I can tell you that there is not a mortgage company out there that will touch a single home for under $50,000 and that was when mortgage money was easy. Unless you bundle these houses, you will not get a mortgage. Perhaps that is what the co-op strategy is about. Of course, rehab of these houses is expensive. And if you just descend on the neighborhood without any commitment or entre, you should expect to have vandalism.

I am not opposed to the Emerald City idea - it might be great for this neighborhood! I applaud the vigor with which people are embracing the alternative urban pioneer concept. Hoo-ray!

But the process by which they are going about this is highly suspect and smacks of gentrification (though they profess to not be gentrifiers). You have to join the co-op to get the benefit. What will protect the existing neighbors from being priced out and forced out? What if you are not an artist and you don't want the empty school building turned into an artist colony? Many urban core residents support senior housing so people can age in place. How will this collision of interests be handled? A far as I can tell, the EC is moving full steam ahead because, well, they have a great idea and why shouldn't they?

I'm not in KC, so this is not something I am on the ground for. I hope other friends will look into this and encourage Emerald City to adopt good community development principles and actions that work with and not against the interests of the Manheim neighborhood.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

After the Election

The confetti has rained and the balloons have been released. The "unity" talk will continue for a while until the first difficult issue breaks. The hope for a productive city will linger. The future seems filled with possibilities that will disappear sooner than we would like.

I think about how good people felt 4 years ago when Mark Funkhouser was elected. That lasted about 5 minutes that turned into 4 long, brutal years that have left the city a bit battered and bruised in some regards.

Today I feel hopeful again with Sly James elected mayor. My concern is that the city council is filled with retreads and re-elected reps. Will they do a better job with a new mayor? Or will it be business as usual? That slippery slope of politics is slippery for a reason...the darn line of ethics keeps moving. I've seen it a hundred times. Politicians get elected thinking they will make a difference. They find out there is a huge level of resistance to their call for change and new ideas. Frustration gives way to compromise and then, slowly but surely, the compromises turn into compromising positions.

Power is seductive. Those who win office and suddenly find power in their hands begin to learn how to use it and don't realize they are being used by it. They rationalize that it is more important to stay in office and keep trying, even it means compromising in ways they never thought they would. The phrase "pick your battles" is a wonderful line of cover. I see it all the time in the University, in politics, even in interpersonal relationships. Compromise for the sake of unity, for the sake of peace, for the sake of moving forward out of a stalemate.

The problem with this strategy is that it moves the line of what is acceptable. After a few compromises you find that what is acceptable has moved greatly. How did you get so far from your original position and principles? But you are here now and the justifications begin. If I could just stay a little longer, I could make a difference, change things, have an impact. But that is not the place for elected officials.

The job of an elected official is not to be a changemaker, but to unleash the changemaking potential of others. This is what Mayor Funkhouser never got. He wanted to be the star. This is typically what most politicians don't get. They want to be kingmakers, out front and special, they want to shine. But when you are part of an elected group, you must work as a unit. There is not much room for being a star. However, you can be a leader, leading the group to see how to advance the agenda, how to work to allow things to happen - not make them happen, not control how they happen.

Politicians often think they are the only ones who can actually see what needs to be done and the ones who must control every aspect of how it is done. Some will try to legislate as a form of dictation. Some will try to micromanage other public employees. Most will not hold themselves accountable as they serve the interests of their special friends, special supporters, and those who curry their favor. This is where politicians lose their way. They think that their job is to give approval to this direction or that direction and to "make it happen." Unfortunately, that skips the most important part of their job - leadership. You must lead to make things happen, not just make them happen on your own. Empower others, lead, support, encourage, stand for something. These are not easy distinctions. No one is perfect. Some have given up even trying.

I wish the new mayor and city council the best as they embark on their new terms. I'll engage the public process, throw out suggestions, raise issues of accountability, and remind you of what the public expects. But don't get in my way or the way of others that are legitimately trying to make this city better. We've not been elected to anything. We are not accountable to you. You are accountable to us. That's change I can believe in.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

KC Elections Round 2 - 3rd District

The March 22 elections are nearly here. The mayoral race has boxed Sly James into a corner unfortunately. He and Mike Burke decided to run a no-mud campaign. That seems to have left Sly with no where to go as Mike racks up endorsements and runs a "well of course you want to vote for me" campaign. In KC that means Mike Burke gets to do a well - you know... style campaign - Hey it's not slinging mud, but you know...

Sly has nowhere to run with this. A shame. But maybe the voters of KC are smarter than Mike thinks and will vote with their brains.

I'm much more concerned about the 3rd District races. The in-district race is a mess. Fletcher is still appealing his residency and this has left Jermain Reed in limbo. If Fletch wins his appeal, Jermain is not in the runoff. If Fletch loses the appeal, Jermain is in, but with only a couple of weeks to go. Meanwhile, Brooks is sitting in the catbird seat. This is a real shame.

The at-large race pits newcomer Brandon Ellington (although he ran in-district 4 years ago and lost) against one of the most established and recognized political family names in the KC metro - Curls, as in Melba Curls. I've been supporting Ellington because I don't think Melba has been an effective representative for the dire situations facing the 3rd district, let alone the city at-large.

Ellington is running a grass-roots, low-budget, guerrilla-style campaign. But the latest salvo comes from a very real, speak truth to power, photo essay. Unfortunately it is only running on Facebook now, but hopefully you can see it from this link:!/album.php?aid=71109&id=1250676511&fbid=1562958234467

It's called "This is What the 3rd District Really Looks Like" and is a stark reminder that the current reps, Brooks and Curls have done nothing to address the needs of this district. While Curls represents the at-large, that also means she has standing to invite the entire city to work with the 3rd. She has squandered her time in office. Perhaps this race will be a wake up call for her and if re-elected she will become more active and responsive? I have no evidence to suggest that will be the case.

Brandon Ellington is green, put a fast study. He has a lot to learn, but has the capacity to do so. He knows the 3rd district and wants to make a difference. He has the street cred to know how to make a difference. He has the passion and the connections to rally the rest of the city to finally be a partner in reviving the 3rd district and stimulating opportunities for the residents that live there.