How a ‘Roadmap for Policy Change’ Helps One City Fight Blight

This is a guest blog written by Tiberius Laughlin, General Services Director, Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas.

My first car was a 1965 Volkswagen Beetle. The most important tool I ever purchased for that car was not the metric socket set that wasn’t very common in 1978. The real tool that made me the master of that car was a book called “The Idiot’s Guide to Volkswagen Repair”. With that simple, easy to use guide I learned where the 11- and 17-millimeter sockets needed to be applied and I rebuilt that car for years.

In the busy world of local government, we don’t have time to read all the white papers and most recent studies on every topic we need to cover. Our areas of responsibility range from transit, to community policing, to street maintenance, to planning of new developments and beyond in a city or county government. Often knowing where to even start is a challenge with such a broad span of operations.

In the new Center for Government Excellence (GovEx) resource, “A Roadmap for Policy Change,” we have a simple to read and a simple to apply tool. A framework that bridges the gap between the “Ivory Towers” of academia and the “Main Streets” of every town U.S.A.

Kansas City, Kansas, (KCK) is no different than hundreds of other mid-sized cities across the country. A pattern of urban flight and suburban sprawl has left a legacy of blight and vacancy, often concentrated in the oldest neighborhoods. And like many of those cities and towns the elected officials and city managers are inundated by calls demanding they address decades old issues of abandonment, deferred maintenance and neglect.

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The demands haven’t changed, but the standard responses have not stemmed the tide. And that tide brings bleeding of property values as vacant houses drag down the entire block they sit on. Estimates vary on how much one vacant house negatively affects the value on those intact homes nearby annually… 3 percent? 5 percent? More? Whatever the exact number, studies agree they have the same harmful effects on an entire neighborhood, including an increased risk of crime, theft, drug use, vandalism, pest infestations and fires.

Determined to do better, the new city administrator in KCK tasked his staff to find solutions that would reverse the slide and address the concerns of residents and elected officials alike.

Stabilization, Occupation and Revitalization (SOAR) was a catchy title, and an eagle makes an impressive mascot, but the effort to sift the evidence-based solutions from the vast sea of data was a Herculean task. A task tackled purely by existing city staff, all of whom continued to have their regular full-time jobs to do.

The researching and reading alone threatened to overwhelm the SOAR research team. How was the team to distinguish between the quality of the various studies, reports, news stories and interviews on the topic? Cities don’t always have access to the gold standard of rigorously peer reviewed studies, journals and white papers. And staffers don’t have the time to sift through more than a fraction of the material available.

The Roadmap provides the support we need to learn about how the policy changes we have researched in other cities, like key swaps, vacancy registries, heat mapping, building maintenance indexing, resolution-based code enforcement and lot repurposing, might work here in KCK. It will also help to assure us that even though these practices have not been tested yet, KCK can begin to build our own body of evidence, and perhaps help other cities that are also working on addressing blight.

We have made progress on our own. We reduced the number of lots we mow by 30 percent while enhancing the quality and frequency of the mowing on the lots that remain. We are returning houses to the tax rolls that have been vacant for years, without spending any tax dollars. We are hunting down the “zombie” mortgages that plague every city in the country. We raised our citizen satisfaction with blight and vacancy issues 4 percent in one year!

But we got this far the hard way. Without the expertise of GovEx guiding us through serious technical issues and a vast network of peer connections in other cities we never would have made such an impact in so small a time.

In taking on SOAR, KCK deliberately exposed a large group of employees to this work to disperse the experience broadly across the organization. In two years, the SOAR project went from non-existent, to being the number one goal of our elected officials.

The broad exposure was intentional – we did not want to lose the focus on SOAR with a change of mayors or the retirement of key team members. And we are changing the culture of government by obliterating silos and making cross-functional teams the norm. The Roadmap will empower those teams to work with existing evidence and contribute our own.

This is easy to understand guide that will help us to keep up the same professional standards that GovEx exposed us to in our initial engagement. Because of that, we will continue to take risks, and thankfully, with our eagle in tow, we are more prepared than ever to soar towards our goals.

Unknown-1.jpegAbout the Author: Tiberius Laughlin, General Services Director, Unified Government of Wyandotte County/ Kansas City, Kansas.