Dana Edwards, president of the Murdock Neighborhood Association, hopes to see more solutions for boarded-up houses in her neighborhood. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)
Dana Edwards, president of the Murdock Neighborhood Association, hopes to see more solutions for boarded-up houses in her neighborhood. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

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There are some houses in Dana Edwards’ neighborhood that catch her eye — boarded-up homes, ones that look like the porches are falling in, abandoned houses. The city of Wichita owns some of them.

“They catch your eye because they aren’t in the proper condition of a livable house,” said Edwards, who is the president of the Murdock Neighborhood Association, which is just east of Interstate 135 and north of Central Avenue. “And these things concern you because you don’t want them to attract people that just come in there and just start living.”

When a neighbor sees a house that appears dangerous or abandoned, they can make a complaint to the city. If the house is vacant and unsafe, as defined by the city code, the city can condemn it. If a house is condemned, the city will demolish it if the owner does not fix or demolish it themselves. 

But from 2016 through 2020, it took an average of 353 days to remove a dangerous or neglected house. City Council member Brandon Johnson said that since he was elected in 2017, residents have told him that the process to fix these houses is too slow.

To remedy this, the city nearly tripled the number of condemnation cases in 2021.

“There has been a great increase in pace,” said Chris Labrum, director of the Metropolitan Area Building and Construction Department (MABCD), which ensures compliance with all city and county codes. 

But some people worry that moving more properties through condemnation hurts the rights of property owners. 

“I’m really concerned about it because I think it’s an attack on the people who basically have little ways to defend themselves both economically, sometimes emotionally and mentally,” said John Todd, a retired real estate broker and Wichita-area developer.

Here’s how Wichita defines a dangerous building:
* Portions that may fall and injure the public
* Open to unauthorized people, loiterers or children
* Presents a fire or safety hazard to surrounding property or a menace to public safety and general welfare
* Read the full definition of what makes a building dangerous

City aims to address more dangerous houses

In Mearlin Overton’s neighborhood, she said a house damaged by fire years ago still stands vacant. Overton is the neighborhood association president of Matlock Heights, which is north of 21st and east of North Grove Street.

“I would rather see it torn down than to have it standing, dilapidated,” Overton said. “Because what that does is it makes people want to come in.” 

It can take up to years to move a house into the condemnation process, said KaLyn Nethercot, neighborhood inspection administrator for the MABCD. That’s because the city frequently has to first try to solve housing issues — peeling paint, roofs with holes, rotting porches — with a case that focuses on code violations. Sometimes, the city even goes to court to try to force the homeowner to solve the code violation before it’s moved into the condemnation process. 

The slow pace can also be a result of MABCD’s limited budget for demolitions — only about $160,000 a year, Labrum said.  

In an attempt to speed up cases, the MABCD suggested changes to the process of handling dangerous properties in February 2021: immediately move houses that are dangerous and unsafe into the condemnation process.

“What that used to be is, ‘Hey we don’t have a budget for that yet, hang on to it for now,’” Labrum said. “Now it’s like: put it in the system, we’ll run it, and we’ll figure the budget out on the backside.”

This change tripled the number of properties moving into the condemnation process in 2021 to 74. Prior to that, the city would generally put between 16 and 24 houses into the condemnation process each year, Labrum said. Since changing processes, the time to resolve a housing case also decreased about 30%, Labrum said. 

But the budget for demolitions remains a concern.

“We’ve already burned through our entire ‘22 budget,” Labrum said. 

Donald Lobmeyer’s property on North Broadway Street, which the city condemned on April 5. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

Can a home be rehabilitated instead of condemned?

As some Wichita residents hope to see the city move more quickly to act on dangerous houses, other property owners, like veteran Don Lobmeyer, feel it moves too fast. 

Lobmeyer struggled to get his white Victorian house on North Broadway Street up to code after it caught fire in 2019, a month before he returned from deployment in Kuwait. The city moved his house into the condemnation process in March 2021. Earlier this month, on April 5, the city formally condemned it. 

“You talk about a soldier that’s coming back a month after deployment, dealing with all this — plus all the medical and everything else I was dealing with,” Lobmeyer said. Since returning from Kuwait, he’d also dealt with a torn rotator cuff and a new diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

After the vote, Lobmeyer stuck a sign in his front yard to call attention to the case: “City of Wichita voted to demolish this veteran’s home. It was set on fire on his 3rd deployment.” This caught the attention of a group that offered to raise funds to rehabilitate the house.

The next week — April 12 — the city changed plans and gave Lobmeyer 60 more days to form a plan to bring the structure to code. 

Todd said that Lobmeyer’s case exemplifies his frustration with the condemnation process. He believes some of the houses slated for demolition — like Lobmeyer’s — could be rehabilitated instead of bulldozed. Todd pointed out that many of the demolished homes are in the 67214 ZIP code, the only majority-minority ZIP code in Wichita.

“Do these people have any concept of what the tearing down of all these properties — many of them that have economic value — means?” Todd said. “You can rehabilitate these houses and create quality, low-cost housing that can bring about tremendous economic uplift to the community.” 

An analysis by The Wichita Beacon confirmed that the ZIP code with the most demolitions since 2017 was 67214. This analysis only included condemnations from a Kansas Open Records Act request for condemnations between 2019 and 2022 and homes that were mentioned in City Council records with demolitions paid by special assessments — when the city pays for the demolition and adds the cost to the property’s tax payment.

Johnson, whose district encompasses much of 67214, said he also wanted these homes to be repurposed instead of torn down when he first ran for office. He said he changed his mind when he learned how much it costs to fix up a blighted house. 

“If we have a home that’s severely damaged, and no one is coming in and stepping up to actually do something with it, then we’re faced with a challenge of keeping a potential eyesore and neighborhood danger there, or leveling it and hoping that we see more investment in housing,” Johnson said. “And we’ve seen that, a lot, so it hasn’t bothered me as much.” 

That’s what’s happening in the A. Price Woodard neighborhood, which is just north of Murdock where Edwards lives. Habitat for Humanity’s Rock the Block campaign built at least 73 new homes there, many of which were on previously vacant lots. Edwards welcomes the investment — and hopes to see it spread into her neighborhood.

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Hack covers local government for The Wichita Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @CeliaHack.