Topeka’s city government is preparing to significantly change its approach for dealing with overgrown grass and weeds in local neighborhoods.
For decades, the city has had property maintenance employees respond to complaints and find out if grass, weeds or other uncultivated vegetation is more than 12 inches tall.
If it is, the city asks the property owner to cut the grass. If the owner doesn’t, the city has Shawnee County Jail inmate crews cut the grass, then bills the property owner.
But the city is preparing to set up two separate programs aimed at improving on that, said city Councilwoman Karen Hiller.
Two-tiered program to help with mowing in Topeka neighborhoods
One will involve the city’s hiring a local company to mow lawns on a fixed-price basis for property owners who can’t do that personally but can afford to pay, she said.
The other will involve volunteers signing up to mow lawns to aid property owners who are unable to mow those lawns and can’t afford to pay to have them mowed, Hiller said.
Putting those programs in place is among “action steps” the city plans to take as part of an effort that’s being spearheaded by Hiller and fellow Councilwoman Christina Valdivia-Alcala. It’s aimed at enabling the city to deal more effectively with public eyesores.
The city is in the first year of that five-year initiative to “change the culture” of its property maintenance program, which enforces the code that spells out city rules regarding concerns that include weeds, graffiti, unsafe structures and sanitation problems.
Hiller and Valdivia-Alcala said they hope the community will support the initiative as it seeks to create an atmosphere where neighborhood residents will be happier and healthier.
“This is not a fly-by-night initiative,” Valdivia-Alcala told The Capital-Journal. “This is a game-changing initiative that might be able to help set a course for other cities our size.”
‘Investment is contagious,’ say Topeka councilwomen
Hiller made reference to the theory that broken windows must be repaired quickly, or vandals will break more windows.
The reverse is happening in Topeka, where people are seeing their neighbors fix up their houses and then fixing up their own, she said.
The conditions of houses in Topeka have generally improved in recent years, Hiller said.
“Investment is contagious,” she said.
And Hiller and Valdivia-Alcala hope to build on that.
Their goal is to create an atmosphere where owners routinely feel inspired to take responsibility for their properties and work together to address such problems as tall grass, instead of waiting for the city to deal with them.
In Google searches for consultant, same name kept coming up
About 12 people work for the Topeka Polic
e Department’s property maintenance division, which puts considerable effort into code enforcement yet still sees a lot of overgrown vegetation and peeling paint, Hiller said.
The city’s property maintenance program is aimed not at achieving criminal convictions but at getting property owners to comply with city code by making repairs.
HIller said she and other members of the council’s public health and safety committee in about June 2020 began looking for creative ways to bring meaningful change to what Valdivia-Alcala calls the “culture” of Topeka’s property maintenance program.
The city last September held seven public meetings in which officials heard input from neighborhood residents and other stakeholders about things the city could do to make that program more effective, efficient and equitable.
“We did some amazing brainstorming,” Hiller said. “The consensus from people was that it’s really important to get this right.”
Hiller and Valdivia-Alcala also decided to seek assistance from an expert.
Valdivia-Alcala conducted a Google search to try to identify someone who could help.
She used search terms that included “innovative,” “property maintenance” and “code compliance” — and kept seeing the same name pop up.
That was the name of Karen Black.
Greater Topeka Partnership is helping cover consultant costs
Black is CEO of Philadelphia-based May 8 Consulting, a social impact consulting firm that has worked since 2002 to help governments, nonprofits and foundations identify and implement innovative strategies to solve key challenges affecting their communities.
She also teaches urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and co-founded the Healthy Rowhouse Project, an initiative to improve access to private capital for home improvement loans that has leveraged $100 million in public and private capital.
Black has a great deal of experience working with other cities to improve their property maintenance efforts, Valdivia-Alcala stressed.
“I saw the projects she was working on and was taken with how deeply she understood code enforcement and the real changes that are needed to shift the dynamics,” she said.
Valdivia-Alcala asked the Greater Topeka Partnership to help pay the city’s costs to hire Black as a consultant. It agreed.
The city of Topeka is paying $49,375 and the GTP is paying $32,000 of Black’s fee of $81,375, said city communications director Gretchen Spiker.
Black this year will carry out a “deep dive” aimed at helping the city create a framework to best reconfigure its property maintenance system, Hiller said.
The city then plans to spend the remaining four years of that initiative putting that framework into place, she said.
‘What you’re doing here is really groundbreaking’
Topeka’s mayor and council voted 10-0 in December to approve goals for the initiative.
That effort seeks by the end of 2026 for the city to reach a point where code violations are the exception rather than the rule, with owners feeling motivated to take care of properties before city departments are even called.
The initiative’s specific goals are as follows:
Reducing the city’s number of substandard structures by 50% in five years.
Reducing deterioration in vacant structures.
Improving the appearance of the community through management of uncultivated and overgrown vegetation, such that the average resident or visitor would score Topeka’s property appearance at least a 7 on a scale of 10.
And reducing the city’s expense/revenue gap on abatement cases by 50%, primarily by establishing a system and culture through which the city makes it clear that it expects owners to take full responsibility for their properties.
The city needs to more strategically use the resources it has on hand to abate code compliance problems, Black said.
The mayor and council last week saw a presentation from Black, who visited Topeka and met with dozens of community leaders and stakeholders.
“What you’re doing here is really groundbreaking,” she said.
Help is available for low-income property owners
Studies show a person’s pulse quickens and their blood pressure rises when they walk past a deteriorating, rundown house, Black told the mayor and council.
She told The Capital-Journal she encourages residents to report maintenance code violations to the city.
Black stressed that people reporting such violations may remain anonymous. Information on how to report violations is available on the city’s website.
Spiker stressed that money is avai
lable to help low-income residents who can’t afford to carry out maintenance needed to bring their homes into compliance with city code.
The Federal Home Loan Bank earlier this year provided $750,000 in grant funding to Topeka’s city government to be used for that purpose, with homeowners being able to receiving assistance in amounts ranging from $2,500 to $20,000.
Applications can be acquired by calling 785-368-3711. Homeowners aren’t required to pay back the grant money, Spiker said.
Tim Hrenchir can be reached at [email protected] or 785-213-5934.
This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Topeka looks to cut down on overgrown grass, other code violations