- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 1, 2016

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - The home in Topeka’s Oakland neighborhood dated to the turn of the 20th century and featured natural green limestone and striking woodwork. But the crumbling foundation couldn’t be saved, so the house was torn down and a new Habitat for Humanity home will be built in its place.

A Kansas Senate bill would allow nonprofit organizations like Habitat for Humanity to gain control of such abandoned houses and rehabilitate them before they are beyond repair. Critics, however, worry the measure would unfairly target disadvantaged people who can’t afford to maintain their homes.

The bill would change the definition of abandoned property to include blighted real estate that has been unoccupied for a year. A local government or nonprofit organization could request temporary possession of the property from a district court to use it for housing or public parks.

Current law only allows organizations, and not local government, to request temporary ownership of homes that are two years tax delinquent and vacant for 90 days.

The legislation gained bipartisan support from state senators who voted 32-8 in favor of the bill last week, sending it to the House for further consideration.

Rep. Stan Frownfelter, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas, who proposed the bill, said he has six abandoned homes in his neighborhood and worries that children who play in them will get hurt.

“There are health issues, infestation, kids doing things that they shouldn’t be doing in there,” Frownfelter said, adding that the measure allows cities to address blighted neighborhoods and abandoned buildings.

Janice Watkins, executive director of Topeka Habitat for Humanity, said the legislation also could save homes and provide more housing options for low-income communities.

“I think it’s a monumental step in expanding housing opportunities for individuals as well as revitalizing neighborhoods in need,” Watkins said.

Topeka Habitat for Humanity attains some of its land as gifts from owners. High school students and volunteers help build the homes, but they can still cost about $90,000 to construct. Danny Jones, construction manager for Topeka Habitat, said he hopes the bill will help defray costs for the organization.

“It’s going to let us get into properties that don’t need to be demolished,” he said, adding that rehabilitation could be a cheaper option for the organization.

Blight and abandoned homes in Kansas became a significant problem in 2008 during the Great Recession, said Whitney Damron, a lobbyist for the city of Topeka.

“The big banks had tens of thousands of homes where the owner threw the keys on the table and just left,” Damron said.

An abandoned home could bring down the property value of other buildings in the neighborhood and attract illegal activity, Damron said.

Sen. David Haley, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas, worried that the measure would allow the local government to seize private property without repaying the owners.

“I believe it’s a fundamental American right for a real property owner to be able to hold their property without harassment by their government,” Haley said.

He said dozens of homes in his district are vacant and in disrepair because the owners are caring for family members or can’t afford to maintain the property.

Damron said the bill safeguards owners by allowing them three months to repair their homes, but Haley fears the measure would disproportionately affect inner-city dwellers who don’t have the time or money to fix their homes.

Haley co-owns an unmaintained building in the historic Quindaro district in Kansas City, Kansas. He acknowledges the building, which has weeds engulfing its broken windows, is not up to code and has been vacant for a year. But he said he “has a history of acquiring distressed properties and putting them into couples’ or individuals’ hands for home ownership.”

He added that his opposition of the bill does not stem from his personal situation.

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This story has been corrected to show that Sen. David Haley’s hometown in Kansas City, Kansas, not Wichita.

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