Don’t let million-dollar homes drive out neighbors who built Kansas City’s West Side

Star file photo

Most of us in Kansas City know the West Side. We’ve cherished it as the heart of the Mexican American community for more than 100 years with its wonderful restaurants and fiestas, fine social service agencies, dramatic and beautiful vistas from the hills and friendly people. What we don’t know is the monster that lurks under the surface, threatening to destroy this community: exorbitantly high property taxes.

My family moved here to work on the railroads at the turn of the 20th century. My parents raised my 12 brothers and sisters, working three jobs to support us. Because the West Side had population density, we’ve had businesses, restaurants, churches, schools and service agencies. Despite our community being been ripped apart as hundreds of homes were demolished for the construction of Southwest Trafficway and Interstates 35 and 670, and despite being written off as nonviable by HUD in the 1970s, we have prevailed to create today’s thriving, safe, clean, quiet community. That also means the West Side is now attractive to higher income families who like the diversity, the views, the ready access to downtown and the thriving Mexican culture.

All of that is at risk as lower income families who have lived here for decades struggle with an exorbitantly high tax burden.

In 2018, Jackson County reassessed properties throughout the county. The average increase in property taxes was 15%. The county saw new million-dollar homes on the West Side and reassessed our properties with an average increase of 128%. The average Jackson County household spends 2.65% of its income on property taxes. On the West Side, some families pay as much as 20%.

We have a lot of older, lower income, mostly Mexican American homeowners. Here, 55 families make less than $15,000 a year. Another 60 earn less than $25,000, and 188 earn less than $50,000.

High taxes are taking a terrible toll. Many people are delinquent on their taxes and could lose their homes to foreclosure. Homeowners are anxious and afraid. These are people who were born and raised on the West Side, raised their families here and deserve to live out their remaining years in the place that is their home.

If we lose these families because of high taxes, it would gut the West Side as we know it. We would lose the heart and soul of our community. We can’t let this happen.

A number of us — professionals, community leaders, friends, families, neighbors — have volunteered hundreds of hours, held countless meetings and sent out thousands of letters over the last year and a half to promote a plan to save our seniors and our community. We have created the resident-driven Chapter 353 Development Plan, which will come before the City Council on Sept. 29. It would make taxes fair and affordable, allowing low-income homeowners to stay in their homes and sustain the West Side as the community we know and love.

The 353 plan computes taxes so that homeowners making less than $75,000 pay no more than 2.65% of their income on property taxes, keeping it in line with the rest of the county. Those making between $75,000 and $150,000 would pay 60% of what the county bills them, and those making more than $150,000 would pay 90% of what’s billed. These benefits accrue only to existing West Side residents. New people coming in would not receive any of the benefits, so the plan would not produce further gentrification.

This effort has been gaining momentum, enough so that higher-income West Side residents are making charitable contributions. The Hispanic Development Fund has made a grant of $25,000. All together so far, we’ve raised $70,000 to help our residents.

But as solid as our progress is, we are at a crisis point. We are out of time: New tax bills, which we are told will increase taxes by an additional 30%, will come within three months. We implore the City Council to adopt this plan, save these families and save our community.

Robert Hernandez is a lifetime resident and leader of Kansas City’s West Side neighborhood. He served on the City Council from 1975 to 1991.