A free email newsletter breaking down the issues that affect Wichitans the most.
Delivered every Tuesday and Thursday morning
Chelsea Lee’s home had never received a nuisance citation from the city of Wichita before last year.
But 2021 was rough for her. First, she spent a week in the hospital in critical condition with a liver infection — and, without health insurance, a pile of bills.
Later that year, her back started acting up. Lee, 44, realized she was living with scoliosis. She regularly wakes up in excruciating pain.
Meanwhile, Lee said, she was trying to help her dad get diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
So it felt like just one more thing piling atop another when Lee got a notice in the mail from the city of Wichita about the litany of items, from armchairs to boxes of books, in her driveway. Especially when her dad, who owns the home in College Hill, ended up in municipal court over the code violation.
Outdoor storage is prohibited in Wichita, and Lee had moved items outside earlier that year for a garage sale. With the onset of her back problems, she said she hadn’t been able to move them back in.
“There’s really little we can do,” Lee said. “(My dad’s) not physically capable. I’m completely incapable. I can’t even carry my own purse around without hunching over.”
Luckily, Lee said, a representative from the city connected her family with Neighbors Indeed, a nonprofit organization that works to help neighbors facing code violations from the city for neighborhood nuisances like bulky waste or tall grass. The organization, led by Richard Ruth, officially received its nonprofit status in late 2021.
Neighbors Indeed is one of dozens of organizations that work with the city on cleanups like this, according to code enforcement liaison Susanne Boese. But Ruth’s inspiration goes beyond a desire to see neighborhoods clean and codes enforced — he primarily wants to foster neighborly relationships throughout the city.
“It’s the relationship between the people in a place that really is my concern,” Ruth said. In a perfect world, Ruth said, neighbors would help each other before the city had to get involved.
A nonprofit response to code violations
Neighborhood code violations in Wichita can include everything from inoperable vehicles left outside for more than two days to lawns with grass that’s over 12 inches high. Violations are doled out by the city after they receive complaints from residents. Wichita receives between 10,000 and 12,000 complaints a year from residents.
If residents do not fix the code violation, the city may take them to court and proceed with a cleanup itself. Homeowners are then responsible for city cleanup costs, court costs and any fines they are charged in court. These fines can be up to $1,000.
For residents who are unable to clean up their homes themselves, the city offers a code enforcement liaison program. This connects people in need with groups like Neighbors Indeed. Since 2016, when the program began, the program has resolved 719 cases.
Residents are referred to the program, based on need, by neighborhood inspectors or judges after appearing in court.
Ruth estimates that he began his work in connection with the code enforcement liaison program in late 2018. As a member of the District 3 Advisory Board, he saw an email from Boese about a neighbor who needed help cleaning up. Soon, as Boese sent him more lists of people in need, he found himself helping every weekend.
Since he began, Ruth has expanded and formalized his efforts. At his workplace, he added cleanups as a community activity that could reduce his co-workers’ health care costs. He connected with local scrappers, who could pick up metal from homes that needed cleanups and sell it at local junkyards. He received a donated pickup truck in order to better haul bulky waste.
In early 2020, he created a Facebook page to ask for volunteers and support. It now has over 400 likes.
Since he began, Ruth estimates he’s helped around 150 households. He estimates about 75% faced a scheduled court date for a code violation.
Is neighboring the solution?
To Ruth, Neighbors Indeed is less about how neighborhoods look and more about the need to rebuild trust and community.
Before showing up to a property on a Saturday for a cleanup, Ruth typically tries to connect with the homeowner and learn more about their lives. Many are facing significant upheaval, Ruth said.
“Typically it can be a health event that has kicked the feet out from under them,” Ruth said. “Or they have some other mental crisis, which has been brought to a point or head with a neighbor calling them in. That frequently happens with hoarding.”
Showing up as a neighbor and community member — not as a social service worker — is key, Ruth said. Melissa Soliz, one of the first people Ruth connected with, said she still gets calls from Ruth asking how she is doing.
Ruth wants to build rapport so neighborhood issues can be resolved by cooperation and coordination among neighbors.
It’s part of the reason he hopes to ultimately not receive any support from the city. Right now, the city provides some dumpsters, lawn mowers and other materials.
“Ideally a neighborhood should never have a property that reaches the point where the only solution is to reach for government help,” Ruth said. “That’s done when a tornado hits.”
Ruth said success for Neighbors Indeed would be an increase in the number of houses avoiding code violations, fewer anonymous complaints filed with the city and more neighborhood events.
A similar idea of neighboring is also embraced by The Neighboring Movement in the South Central neighborhood of Wichita. The nonprofit organization focuses on connecting neighbors and, when necessary, finding internal solutions to community problems.
“It’s really seeing that there’s ways to create solutions within the community, and always focusing on the first solutions being from within the community,” said Adam Barlow-Thompson, the convener and co-founder of The Neighboring Movement. “The people who actually live there.”
But The Neighboring Movement also tries to focus first on the gifts of community members — what they can offer the community — instead of their needs, like fixing a code violation, Barlow-Thompson said. This is likely the biggest difference between Neighbors Indeed and the Neighboring Movement, he added.
‘No one wants to be a burden’
Neighbors Indeed as it stands now has its limitations, Ruth said.
First, he’s noticed that the problem of code violations tends to recur, especially if homeowners face an ongoing health problem.
In the long term, he hopes to set up an adopt-a-neighbor program to address that problem by pairing neighbors who can do physical work with those who have recurring maintenance issues.
He’s also creating a booklet for neighborhood associations to use, in hopes that more will begin working with homes facing code violations.
Lee would like to see this, too. While she appreciated Ruth’s work removing items from her driveway, she would’ve loved to hear from her own neighbors.
“That removes the guilt a lot of people with chronic illness struggle with,” Lee wrote in a follow-up text. “No one wants to be a burden. No one wants to be a charity case or treated as one. No one wants to be the neighbor everyone is annoyed with. Having to face a judge before being faced by a neighbor? What a disconnect and I honestly don’t understand.”