Suspected squatter fire in Jazz District highlights reasons behind KCMO’s battle against blight

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Investigators say a squatter is to blame for starting a fire in the Historic Jazz District on Thursday.

KCMO Mayor Sly James has a goal to eliminate abandoned buildings altogether, and an ongoing plan to make neighborhoods safer.

A vacant structure looks like a welcome mat to homeless people -- and that can lead to trouble.

That was the case at 18th and Vine, where, on Thursday morning, two old boarded up buildings were torched. Fire investigators say the blaze started when a squatter staying here built a fire and it whirled out of control.

A homeless woman escaped the fire with only burns to her hands. Squatters are a common sight in the neighborhood, according to a number of business owners.

“There's one I see every day that I generally see and stop and give money to,” Sharon Webber, KC Blues & Jazz Juke House manager, said.

Webber never imagined a squatter would start a fire this big.

“There is nowhere for them to go but these bridges and these abandoned homes,” Webber said.

The city has a plan. Chris Hernandez, Kansas City spokesperson, says the city is halfway through a two-year, $10 million program to eliminate dangerous and abandoned buildings. So far, the city has knocked out 100 of 825 boarded-up buildings on its list.

“If a building is boarded up, if it is secured, it's secured for a reason,” Hernandez said.

“It's horrible for your quality of life if you've got an abandoned property on your block. That's the whole point of us trying to take actions that will help revitalize these neighborhoods. No one wants to live with a boarded up building on their block.

The city believes preserving these three buildings is worth it. One of them was home to the first auto dealer owned by an African-American. Homer B. Roberts went into business there in 1923.

Hernandez also told FOX 4 News 75 more dangerous structures are scheduled for demolition. He says in some cases, owners have cleaned up their abandoned buildings, which is another step toward giving squatters no place to cause problems.

The city's Land Bank has also sold many of those boarded-up homes to new owners at only a dollar apiece. Hernandez says another similar sale will be coming soon.