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KCMO's Land Bank wants you to lighten the city's blight burden



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"We don't want somebody buying it and putting a fence around it in their yard," he says of that tiny unowned segment of grass.

The land bank does have some homes that are in good enough condition to attract new owners — something that Park says could greatly improve neighborhoods. That's because the land bank means to hold developers accountable for their proposals. The purchase process requires that a prospective buyer explain his or her plans for the property when making an offer.

"Somebody can say, 'I'm only going to give you $100 for that property, because I'm going to put $30,000 into the structure,'" Park says. "If they don't put that $30,000 in, or if they don't make the repairs they promised to make with that $30,000, the land bank can foreclose and take it back."

Developers also must prove that they have the financial stability to improve the home, pass a background check, and agree to occupy the home for three years.

"If a house has been vacant for two or three years," Park says, "and you say, 'Well, I'm going to paint it' — OK, tell us what else you're going to do."

The land bank is also able to invoke that ancient adage of business: You gotta spend money to make money. For Park, that means attending tax-foreclosure auctions on the steps outside the Jackson County Courthouse to bid on properties. With smart but modest investments, the thinking goes, the bank can pick up a little window dressing to go with its more blighted holdings. Relatively move-in-ready properties could draw eyes to the rest of the bank's holdings while bringing in needed revenue.

"You want to have good properties in your inventory, because you make money off of those to cover your costs of maintaining the properties that are difficult or impossible to sell," Park says. "Somebody's got to mow. Somebody's got to clean up the trash. Somebody's got to keep it boarded."

At an August 6 tax-foreclosure auction, a couple of hundred people showed up to the courthouse, looking to snap up properties on the cheap. The crowd was racially diverse, with every age group represented and a miniature U.N. of languages spoken. Families waited with their bored children as the temperature climbed toward the mid-90s. A few arrived early enough to find space for their camping chairs in the shadow of the building, but many more more sweated in the sun.

Just about everybody at the auction clutched a copy of a newspaper ad listing the process. They'd circled properties in marker, readied themselves for bidding wars. (Park had already decided to pass on everything that day — knowing the land bank would end up with something anyway.) Most of what went up, though, didn't attract that kind of interest.

"Next parcel is K20121087," the auctioneer droned. "Any bids?"

No hands.

"Seeing no bids. Next parcel."

The next one also failed to attract a buyer, and in two minutes the land bank was burdened with two more properties.

That means two more properties to add to a website that doesn't yet include photos of most of what's available. Two more properties for city employees to research and then input into a database. Two more properties to inspect and, perhaps, tear down.

When Park was studying how to set up his office, he spoke with the director of a land bank in Michigan, who told him, "Well, we're big. We've got 600 properties and only 14 staff members."

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