Gentrification isn’t a dirty word. It’s displacement that must be countered

Star file photo

The Kansas City Council took an important step Thursday to provide needed tax relief in the city’s West Side neighborhood. It approved an innovative but complicated plan that could cap property taxes for most current residents for up to 25 years.

Generally, we support the decision. After handing out business tax incentives for decades, it’s nice to see regular people getting a needed break at the tax window for a change.

At the same time, the city must proceed with care. It’s possible, perhaps likely, that residents in other neighborhoods will soon seek similar tax help. If abatements and caps become common, the cost to the public bodies that rely on property tax revenue will grow.

That could mean fewer services, substandard schools, and other cuts to public responsibilities, which we do not support.

There can be no question that many West Side residents need property tax relief. Because of the general inflationary increase in property values, and the new construction of expensive homes in the neighborhood, taxes have exploded for many long-time residents, many elderly and those on fixed incomes.

“The West Side neighborhood is the only neighborhood in Jackson County with an average two-year increase in assessed values … exceeding 115%,” the application for abatements says. That’s about six times the county average.

More than 1 in 4 West Side homeowners are now delinquent on their property tax bills, officials say.

More than one-fifth of West Side neighborhood owner-occupants earn less than half the Kansas City average. In some cases, though, they now live alongside residents earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Gentrification isn’t inherently bad. Generally, it means the influx of people and capital to neighborhoods that need both. It can bring needed investment to older neighborhoods. And, of course, rising home values provide equity for long-time homeowners that can put serious cash into pockets when homes are sold.

But that’s little comfort for homeowners who want to stay in houses they’ve owned for decades. Nor for renters whose long-standing relationship with the neighborhood they call home is threatened by rents landlords feel forced to raise to keep up with rising taxes. It’s cruel and unnecessary to force someone to sell just because appraisals have gone up, or taxes are significantly higher.

The key is to focus on the real issue: not gentrification, but displacement -- coming up with innovative programs that allow existing property taxes to grow slowly, giving poorer residents a chance to keep up, and stay in their homes.

The program, to be administered by the Westside Redevelopment Corporation, is just such an innovation. The complicated program allows homeowners to take advantage of tax caps and abatements in return for commitments to make small annual investments in maintaining their property.

Some residents can get financial help with those projects through what’s called a “neighborhood support fee,” paid by participants. That, too, is important.

So is transparency and oversight: even some residents are worried about where all the money will go. The City Council must have regular reports, and full access to the corporation’s records, as the program is implemented.

To make the program work, the City Council had to declare the West Side area -- generally I-670 to 31st, State Line to Broadway/Southwest Boulevard/Summit -- as blighted. It is that, at least in some places.

But there are many blighted neighborhoods in Kansas City. If those residents see major tax increases, and demand similar treatment, the cost to various public budgets could grow exponentially. That’s why the City Council must keep a close eye on the outcome of the plan, and consider reasonable guidelines before similar programs are started elsewhere.

Kansas City’s effort to offer affordable homes for all of its residents now has another tool in the toolbox. The City Council should use it wisely. It will take proper use of this tool, and others, to crack the affordable home ownership puzzle in a city where half the residents rent their homes.