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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.

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