Bringing down the house(s)
Data and stories about reinvesting in Topeka's neighborhoods
It's bittersweet. It's another historic house that's going down ... But I'm glad that a vacant structure, where people were coming and hanging out, breaking in, that that is going down. It needed to come down. It will bring up the values of the houses that are surviving and make this area an area that can be revitalized.- Topekan Katrina Bayless
A neighbor's story
For 17 years, Katrina Bayless has been a proud resident of the North Topeka East neighborhood. It's an older area. The homeowners there can talk for days about the TLC needed to keep the historic homes looking spry. Clearing roots out of sewer lines. Fixing cracks in plaster walls. Resealing decades-old windows. The list goes on.
But not every homeowner takes care of its property like Bayless and her neighbors. Some leave it -- or pass it down to heirs who leave it -- to rot and decay. To becoming a nuisance, filled with squatters, addicts, rodents. Trashed and forgotten beyond repair.
Such is the case for 1125 NW Jackson, just three doors down from Bayless.
In its prime, 1125 NW Jackson was a site to behold. Three finished floors of history. A cylindrical column on the south, giving the home almost a medieval quality. Its red roof made the structure pop out against the grey backdrop of an overcast sky.
But then its most recent owners died. The home was forgotten. It became a regular on Topeka's property maintenance unit list -- racking up 10 citations in just two years.
Eventually, the City had to put it on its unsafe structure list. An administrative hearing officer issued a demolition order in August 2016. It was torn down three months later.
For Katrina, the demolition was "bittersweet." On one hand, a house that was causing trouble in the neighborhood was gone. On the other, so was an historic property -- something she and many other Topekans value about their City.
Meeting a goal
1125 NW Jackson was the 21st structure the City of Topeka paid to tear down in 2016. This particular structure cost taxpayers $12,360 (while we do assess the costs to the property owner, we rarely get back the full amount).
With only one more house to tear down with 2016 funds, the City will be using up the majority of its $400,000 demolition budget to tear down a whopping 37 properties. That put us on track with last year's performance goal.
The box to the right pulls from our open data portal, so you can track our progress during the current fiscal year.
Demolishing 37 homes in a year might seem like a low number, even compared to the 10 we usually tear down, but that's because tearing down a property that isn't ours takes a significant amount of time, resources and legal processes. In fact, it's a 52 step process that takes an average of 6 to 9 months.
That process is part of the problem, and why we, along with several other cities, will continue to try to pass legislation (in 2017, it was SB 31) to help.
Bottom line: Property maintenance is about property rights. You have them as a property owner, and everyone needs to respect those rights -- from the City, as evidenced by all the hoops we have to go through to tear down a problem house, to your neighbors, who need to take care of their properties so it doesn't hurt yours.
Topeka, along with several other municipalities, once again petitioned the Kansas Legislature to help cities get legal control of these properties before they become blighted -- so we can spend less money to rehabilitate them and make them available to people in need of affordable housing instead of destroying a once perfectly fine home.
You can read more about the bill and why we support it in this story from The Topeka Capital-Journal.
The bill died in the Senate in 2017, so we'll be picking up the issue again next session.
Show me the money
The $400,000 budget the Department of Neighborhood Relations had to tear down structures in 2016 is thanks to a vote from the Topeka City Council to quadruple the usual funding for construction services (the big orange part of the doughnut).
That infusion of cash in 2016 and 2017 is because the City heard, time and again, from members of the public about the problems caused by these abandoned, dangerous properties.
SSU & Priorities
The Council in 2015 also approved two positions in property code maintenance that make up our Special Structures Unit. Their job is to comb through the 700 vacant homes in Topeka and determine which ones need to be demolished, which ones can be rehabilitated and which ones are fine as they are.
Property maintenance code has developed a matrix to help us prioritize demolitions. Considerations include whether the structure is in an intensive care area (red on this map) or in a Stages of Target Resources (SORT) area. We also prioritize abandoned structures that are close to schools, parks and community centers or along major roads.
Another aside: These weren't the only structures the City demolishes this year. We also have a voluntary demolition program that should take down several dozen more homes, with the financial assistance of the owner.
Maps, videos & more
The properties demolished with 2016 funds were spread all over the City, from the a foundation in the southwest corner of the City to several right in the heart of central Topeka. Click the orange markers to see details about each structure we took down last year.
As of May 1, 2017, we had one more house to tear down with 2016 funds. If you want to learn more about the structures we took down last year -- including footage inside the properties -- scroll through the blog below.
Another open data effort by the City of Topeka is our checkbook -- an accounting of every check we write with your tax dollars. If you want to see how much we paid the companies that demolished these structures, it's a simple vendor search in checkbook.topeka.org:
- Scotty Wilson Enterprises
- 4R Construction
- American Standard
- Advanced Environmental
- McPherson Wrecking
- Marty Grist
- Wayne Roberts
While we gear up for 2017's demolition list, you can contact your representatives in support of abandoned housing legislation or, if you see a house or any other City issue that needs addressed, you can report it very simply with our smartphone app: SeeClickFix Topeka.