Urban Homesteading—A New Triple Bottom Line

The search for more affordable housing usually smacks into the big elephant; where will all the money come from? One often overlooked strategy, urban homesteading, can skip over that problem entirely, and as added bonuses remove neighborhood blight and strengthen the neighborhood social fabric. It’s a win, win, win.

Here’s what urban homesteading looks like, through the eyes of an immigrant family. We’ll call them Ralph and Alice. He’s an auto mechanic and she’s a housecleaner who makes and sells tamales on the side. They have four kids, the oldest 16. For years they’ve rented apartments in the Northeast of Kansas City, places too cramped, run-down and expensive. A word-of-mouth tip brought them to the local Legal Aid office hoping for the American Dream, a house of their own.

As it happened, the Legal Aid office was helping the local neighborhood association tackle its biggest challenge: scores of vacant, derelict, abandoned homes. Homes that attract drug dealers, bring down surrounding home values, run up unpaid tax bills, and further subtract from what was once thriving affordable housing. The Wall Street wizards of the housing crisis of a decade ago did this: blight you can see, and more blight you can’t in the form of corrupted land titles that repel buyers.

The neighborhood association had its eye, among others, on a particular home that had been vacant for over four years. The home’s metal had been stripped and there was hole in the roof. Tall weeks and trash only partly obscured the view from the street. Legal Aid brokered a deal between the neighborhood association and Ralph and Alice. The neighborhood association agreed to sue any and all who might have an interest in the house seeking a court order of abandonment under the State Abandoned Housing Act—drafted for this purpose by Legal Aid. Ralph and Alice agreed to repair the house themselves and live in it for at least two years. No grants. No loans. But lots of elbow grease and weekend help from friends and relatives.

They signed a contract and went to court, with Legal Aid representing the neighborhood association no charge. Ralph and Alice studied the house and came up with a rehab plan. New plumbing, new wiring, new HVAC, roof repair, cabinets and fixtures and lots of cleanout. Nine months. The Judge approved the plan and told them to come back when the work was done. Legal Aid negotiated away an old $3,000 water bill, and the lawsuit erased thousands more in judgment liens. Ralph and Alice ponied up for the $4,000 delinquent property tax bill. And after many setbacks and about $10,000 in materials they made it habitable.

The neighborhood association was ecstatic. The president toured the home for a final inspection, pronounced it great, and reminded Ralph and Alice of one additional clause in the contract … they had to join the neighborhood association and be welcomed into the arms of grateful neighbors. Easy.

Back to court one more time where the judge approved the rehab work and granted judicial title to the home—now cleansed of all its title defects—to the neighborhood association, which promptly conveyed to Ralph and For Alice, no extra charge. Ralph and Alice and their four children are now homeowners and, just as importantly, neighbors.

Not all low-income families can do this. It requires some savings, some construction ability, perseverance, and a support group. But there are many, many families eager and able, desperate to try and only needing a chance. Urban homesteading is a new animal in the quest for affordable housing. Elephant, step aside.

For more information, please contact

Brenda Romo, 816 474 9868; bromo@lawmo.org