The Washington-Wheatley neighborhood, which sits just south of the historic 18th and Vine District, is home to an area with the highest rate of shootings in the city. It also has one of the city’s highest eviction rates. Many of the homes in the neighborhood are vacant, but some are being rehabbed by a group of local men trying to improve the neighborhood (Rich Sugg/The Kansas City Star).
KANSAS CITY — When Bryan Murrell first found the house, he could barely imagine anyone had ever lived there.
It was boarded up, filled with trash, everything in complete disarray.
But Murrell, a part-time home renovator, knows this house on a corner of Prospect Avenue in Kansas City’s Washington-Wheatley neighborhood can be a happy home again. He spent his early childhood nearby and remembers the families who lived here.
Now 42, Murrell has seen the neighborhood hollowed out over the years by a historic loss of Black homeownership, high rates of evictions and deteriorating housing conditions.
The worse the housing situation grew, the more gun violence tore the community apart.
Murell can name those lost almost by the half-dozen. His best friend, a victim of an unsolved murder. His cousin JJ, a barber slain in a triple homicide. JJ’s older brother, and another family member who was shot by a police officer.
“I felt kinda numb. We had a different sense, a different feel of life,” Murrell said. “It could be over just like that, out of the blue.
“I don’t want to say it’s normal, because it’s not normal. But you just expect the unexpected.”
The Washington-Wheatley neighborhood where Murrell works, just south of the historic 18th and Vine District, is home to an area with the highest rate of shootings in the city. It also has one of the city’s highest eviction rates.
In fact, of the 10 Jackson County census tracts with the highest numbers of shootings, all but one also had higher than average eviction rates, according to an analysis by The Star of data from the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive and Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.
The same pattern holds across Missouri, with the top cities for evictions — Independence, Kansas City, St. Louis, Springfield and Columbia — also leaders in gun homicides as of last year.
Housing problems, including evictions, blight, and homelessness, fuel the city’s gun violence, researchers say, along with deficits in a host of social determinants of health including income, access to food, healthy living environments and quality education.
Without a stable home, people are more likely to pick up a gun to secure their personal safety, public health experts say. Upheaval, stress and trauma from housing problems lead to desperation, conflict and suicide.
Neighborhoods that lose residents to eviction and high turnover also lose their best defense mechanisms — the eyes and ears of trusted residents on the street. The population drain means their voice at City Hall is muffled. Vacant buildings become magnets for crime.
“Eviction is often talked about as violence against an individual or family, but we also have to think of it as violence against the community,” said Alizea Durana of the Eviction Lab.
“Because your credit has been ruined, you might need to move out of the community or out of the neighborhood that you can call home to find a place to live — and that can affect childcare and eldercare networks, it can affect support systems within communities.”
All those problems are set to get worse this summer, as the city faces a tidal wave of evictions if a federal moratorium put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic expires June 30.
That, gun violence experts and policymakers say, could set off another spike in shootings and killings for a city that just set a homicide record last year.
“Were it to be lifted, especially all at once, and there was a flood of evictions or foreclosures, that just creates more housing and shelter instability,” said Ken Novak, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“One of the factors that fuels violence in general, but I think gun violence in particular, is stress and strain,” Novak said. “And so when people are feeling greater stress and strain in their life … it’s a risk factor for crime and violence.”
Kansas City has never gotten a handle on its long-term problems with disinvestment and gun violence, Novak said.
As the economy rebounds and people get jobs, it is essential that Kansas City has affordable housing, said U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who represents the city’s urban core and was recently named the chair of the House Financial Services subcommittee that oversees housing and community development.
“We absolutely cannot leave housing out of the equation,” Cleaver said. “If we do, we’re probably going to see some kind of increase in violent crime.”
The Kansas City Police Department declined to make someone available to discuss the impact of housing problems on gun violence.
“Unfortunately I’d say that because we don’t have any dealings with evictions and most times don’t have any knowledge of them, that association is not something that we would track or have any accurate data on,” said Sgt. Jacob Becchina, police department spokesman.
About four years ago, Murrell put his skills to work making a difference, one abandoned house at a time.
Using the Abandoned Housing Act to secure properties from absentee owners at minimal cost, he rehabs them and puts them up for sale or rent, giving preference to locals. He hosts open houses for neighborhood residents before he puts the houses up for sale.
Murrell has rehabbed about 10 homes so far. He recently rented a house near Research Medical Center to Jelani Tanner, a co-worker from Murrell’s day job at the post office.
As a result, Tanner was able to move himself and his two sons, ages 11 and 14, out of their apartment near Bannister Road and Blue Ridge Boulevard. They had been troubled by the level of gun violence there and went months without a working stove.
Now, Tanner said, his family is happier and safer. They like the wooden flooring and the marble countertops, and his sons have a yard to play in. All for around same price as their small apartment.
“When you come across a house he rehabbed, and you see how nice it is, it gives you a certain feeling of, ‘Okay, I don’t have to settle, I can aspire to have more, be more and do more.’”
For Murrell, it’s a labor of love.
“Creating safe communities comes from building better homes,” Murrell said.“Because people will value it more. There’s a universal feel — it’s crazy but that happens — if those houses get fixed up.”
He’s not the only one. Marlon Hammons, president of the Washington-Wheatley Neighborhood Association, and about eight other local builders are doing the same. All told, the group has rehabbed more than 100 houses in surrounding neighborhoods.
They have their work cut out for them.
Washington-Wheatley, bounded on the north by 18th and Vine and on the south by 27th Street, is pockmarked with vacant buildings. It also counts as many as 65 people evicted in a given year. Last year, at least eight shootings were reported in the neighborhood, which only counts about 2,000 residents.
The neighborhood sits near the top of the Prospect Corridor, a 30-block stretch from 18th to 40th streets defined by historic redlining, marked by structural inequalities and home to many Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.=
A city study 13 years ago found 2,000 abandoned houses in this zone and identified the corridor as an area in need of large-scale investment. But that never happened.
Today, about half of the tenants in the area pay more than 35% of their income in rent, which the federal government qualifies as rent burdened.
The area records a higher-than-average eviction rate and more shootings compared to the rest of the county.
Residents in the Prospect Corridor make up less than 3% of Jackson County’s population, but about 1 in 16 evictions and more than 1 in 10 shootings happen here.
Statewide issue in Missouri
Housing pressures and gun violence go hand-in-hand across Missouri.
The state’s two largest cities, Kansas City and St. Louis, ranked in the top 25% for their eviction rate nationally, according to analysis of data from the Eviction Lab.
They both also have higher gun homicide rates than almost all other U.S. cities.
Among Missouri’s largest cities, Independence ranked No. 1 for its eviction rate in 2016, with more than four evictions for every 100 tenants. For No. 2 Kansas City, it means more than 10 evictions each day.
Forty percent of youth who experience homelessness are victims, perpetrators or witnesses to gun violence, a University of Missouri study of several U.S. cities showed.
Many times, the study found, homeless youth begin carrying firearms to protect themselves.
“If we are able to protect them from the hazardous environment, living on the street, so that we have a concrete place to make them feel safe and secure, then I think they’re less likely to engage in firearm violence,” said Hsun-Ta Hsu, an assistant professor involved in the study.
Wave of evictions
In Washington-Wheatley, the Seton Center nonprofit aims to help at least 20 households with rent and utility payments every month. But leaders see trouble brewing.
Already, things are dangerous enough in the neighborhood. Employees at the center have a regular routine for safety: at the end of the day, the executive director walks down the hall, giving everyone a two minute heads-up that it’s time to leave. Then they all walk across the street together to their cars in the gated parking lot.
But what worries them now is they won’t have the resources to fill the additional need if the housing pressures get worse. For now, they say, the pandemic protections are holding crisis at bay for many.
“Ultimately what families are seeing is they’re not getting their cut-off notices or they’re not getting an eviction notice, so out of sight out of mind,” said Kimberly Rowe, director of social services at the center.
“But those fees are still accruing.”
Across Missouri, nearly 20 percent of adults are in danger of eviction or foreclosure in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.
KC tenants, a local advocacy group, has been calling for housing reform since the start of the pandemic. When Jackson County courts were still carrying out evictions in January, the organizers’ efforts to block evictions through protests in the courthouse gained national attention.
In recent months, the growth of some of the largest homeless camps in recent memory in front of City Hall and in Westport spurred some efforts to address housing issues. The city offered temporary housing in hotels for 500 people.
The city also announced the creation of a housing department to focus on homelessness and affordable housing.
But there is no money set aside to fund it.
“It has been discussed for any number of years,” Mayor Quinton Lucas said. “The investments that we make in building up neighborhoods: making sure there’s stability, making sure that folks can stay and avoid displacement, making sure that you have a kind of a community spirit — people who feel valued and are valued — helps with things .”
Lucas said the prospect of a surge in evictions and shootings was on City Hall’s radar as well.
Diane Charity, board secretary for KC Tenants, said she is hoping that won’t happen.
“I think that is going to get better, I really have this glimmer of hope,” Charity said, pointing to federal stimulus payments that have been going out, and the millions of rent and utility assistance available in Kansas City through the city’s new Emergency Rental Assistance Program.
But, she added: “we’re bracing ourselves.”
Hammons, president of the Washington Wheatley neighborhood association, wants to show that rehabbing houses, and home ownership, can be a worthwhile investment for young Black residents: a source of stability and safe, secure income.
But the process of turning abandoned buildings into homes is tricky.
It can take months to use the federal abandoned homes program to obtain a single house. Then comes the time and cost to renovate it. So Hammons is looking at additional ways to make his neighborhood safer.
The neighborhood association is moving forward with plans to create a “model block,” building from the ground up on a section of the neighborhood covered by vacant lots.
After meeting with the city manager and other leaders of neighborhood associations, Hammons is hopeful that federal COVID relief funding will be used to rebuild neighborhoods in the Prospect Corridor.
“We’re getting $190 million dollars — it’ll be a game changer. We can blow the money and waste it, or we can use it wisely,” Hammons said. “We’ll never have this opportunity again.”
Lucas said it is possible the COVID funding could be used for housing, but the city has not made concrete plans.
Houses for $1
One of the city’s most visible efforts in housing came with its offer of abandoned houses for sale at a price of $1.
But while it sounds like a bargain, the program has in the past fallen short of making a major impact.
The houses offered for sale number about 110 city-owned properties — a drop in the bucket compared with the estimated 20,000 privately-owned abandoned houses across the city.
And though purchase comes with an expectation the houses will be rehabbed to shelter the unhoused, that often doesn’t happen.
“It’s not easy to rehab these buildings,” said John Baccala, the community liaison for Neighborhood and Housing Services.
The work is expensive and risky for individuals to take on themselves. When the city rolled out a similar effort in 2016, some of the buyers fell through and others gave up midway through the repair process. While the buyers were supposed to be local, some of the homes were sold to people as far away as South Dakota.
And in 2016, the program at least came with a $8,500 rebate. This year, the city is not even offering that.
Lucas said he knows it is a challenge.
“You can’t just give houses out for $1, and then expect everything, it’s just going to work swimmingly,” he said.
When it comes to providing housing for people in large numbers, the federal government has historically done much more than city governments.
But in Kansas City, federal public housing is underfunded and in short supply, said Edwin Lowndes, executive director of the Kansas City Housing Authority.
The Housing Authority which oversees public housing locally, has a waitlist in Kansas City with over 6,000 names on it.
The average wait time for the voucher program is more than three years.
“Housing authorities across the country, including here in Kansas City, see there is a need for more housing, and more public housing,” Lowndes said.
President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill includes a proposal to develop new public housing, something that has not been done in Kansas City for more than 30 years.
But any work on that is far in the future.
Driving down Prospect Avenue near Washington-Wheatley, Murrell sees rows of abandoned houses with broken windows and the faded signs of long-shuttered businesses.
More resources would expedite the work he and others are doing in these neighborhoods, he said, and help make Kansas City safer and more vibrant.
“There won’t be as much trouble. It’ll lessen crime — that’s the type of value, the type of impact it will have,” Murrell said.
“In the future, the value that it brings is not only the money, but the life value. The kids, they’ll value the area more, they’ll take more care of it because they have a community being rehabbed by their own people, so that community becomes like a home.”
The Star’s Cortlynn Stark contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the Abandoned Housing Act as a federal law. It is a Missouri state statute.