The City Council voted to condemn and demolish this property just west of Interstate 135 and Central Avenue on June 14. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)
The City Council voted to condemn and demolish this property just west of Interstate 135 and Central Avenue on June 14. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

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To pay for more demolitions of blighted houses in the next year, the Wichita City Council added $100,000 to the 2022 building and construction department budget on June 14.

The city condemns and demolishes vacant residential properties that it considers unsafe — for example, fire-damaged homes, residences with falling-in porches and unsecured houses. To reduce a growing backlog of these properties, the city tripled the number of condemnation cases in 2021.   

“We’re speeding it up the best we can,” said Chris Labrum, director of the Metropolitan Area Building and Construction Department (MABCD), during an April 2 District 1 meeting.

About 50% of condemnation cases in Wichita result in demolition, so as condemnations increase so do demolitions the city carries out. That’s an expensive task, at approximately $10,000 per demolition. By April, the MABCD had already used their entire 2022 budget for demolitions, Labrum said. 

Adding money to the demolition budget from the general fund halfway through the year is a first in his memory, said District 1 council member Brandon Johnson. District 1 encompasses part of the 67214 ZIP code, which had the most homes condemned in the past several years. It’s the only majority-minority ZIP code in Wichita.

“Running out of money early is typical, because there’s not a whole lot of money in the budget,” Johnson said. “This is the first time I can remember where that request was made early and it came to council early.”

The city has 21 properties currently in the condemnation process. If any of these cases leads to demolition, they would have to be deferred until 2023 without the additional $100,000 in funding — creating a backlog into the next year.  

That’s a public safety problem, said District 3 council member Mike Hoheisel, who listed combating neighborhood blight as one of his top budget priorities. 

“We have one house that has caught fire twice. It’s squatters or it’s substandard wiring,” Hoheisel said. “We have one house that has a big hole in the roof, and people have spied children going in and out of there.”

Graphic by Celia Hack/The Wichita Beacon
Source: Wichita City Council Workshop February 23, 2021
Note: This graphic does not include the time extensions that both the advisory board and the City Council can grant to property owners. Additionally, this graphic does not showcase the many opportunities for property owner resolution, in which the property owner fixes the code violations and the property is removed from condemnation.

Wichita’s neighborhood leaders see blighted houses as central issue

Some neighborhood leaders in Wichita have been begging the city to act on the backlog of blighted houses for years. 

Mearlin Overton, president of the Matlock Heights neighborhood association, is one of those leaders. She worries that blighted houses in her neighborhood near 25th and Hillside bring down property values and attract crime when they are not demolished. Safety is another concern of hers. 

The extra investment in demolitions is insufficient, she said. She hopes to see more invested.

“What in the hell is $100,000?” Overton said. “It’s not enough. It’s not enough.” 

The City Council voted to condemn and demolish this home on Poplar Avenue on June 14. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

Other community members worry that the increase in demolitions is an infringement on property rights. John Todd, a retired real estate broker and developer in Wichita, said he’s disappointed to see more city money put toward demolitions of houses.  

“We have people who have economic, physical, mental (challenges) and a total lack of understanding of what their options are,” Todd said. “They need counseling instead of houses torn down.” 

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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.