Andree Sisco’s entry into public service came about when she couldn’t find anyone willing to mow the grass.
Sisco moved to Oaklawn, an unincorporated community sandwiched between Wichita and Derby, in 1981. Nestled between the Arkansas River and K-15, Oaklawn sits on 260 acres, a neighborhood hastily built as a quick solution to a wartime housing shortage in 1952.
Once “one of the largest housing construction projects in the history of Kansas,” Oaklawn is not recognized as a municipality by the state of Kansas. It has also often lacked other clear markers of community recognition. At the time of her arrival, Sisco says residents were still assigned phone numbers associated with Haysville, a Wichita suburb nearly six miles to the west.
Her kids played baseball for the now-defunct South Riverside Youth Club when the spark for her first dip into civic engagement ignited: finding someone to manage the tall weeds and flooded ditches surrounding the field.
“I got ate up by mosquitoes. I called around to see whose responsibility it was to take care of it,” Sisco says. “I never could get anybody to cut the grass. I would call Riverside Township and they’d say ‘it’s the (Oaklawn) Improvement District’s (issue).’ I’d call the improvement district and they’d say, ‘No, it’s not ours.’”
Exasperated by the lack of accountability from any local agency, Sisco decided to run for a position on the board of the Oaklawn Improvement District, where she’s been the treasurer for 34 years.
She’s one of three elected officials who oversee the quasi-governmental entity that provides limited services to residents. (In the eyes of the U.S. Census, Oaklawn shares its population count of about 3,000 residents with Sunview, a smaller, neighboring community overseen by a similar but separate improvement district.)
The Oaklawn district’s role includes park upkeep, senior services, nuisance abatements and state Department for Children and Families services. The rest of what the community gets comes from a patchwork of regional providers.
The other board members are Don Winston, the president, and Nichole Heird, the secretary. There’s also an office manager and community/senior director listed on the website.
Despite its proximity and historic links to Wichita, aside from water, Oaklawn receives minimal services from the city of Wichita. Road upkeep falls to Riverside Township. Oaklawn kids attend Derby Public Schools. The Derby Recreation Commission runs the Oaklawn Activity Center. Policing, fire protection, limited bus service (with an extension promised) and health services are provided by Sedgwick County.
As a result, Oaklawn occupies a curious, category-busting space in the local civic landscape. It’s a neighborhood that looks like a suburb but is governed similarly to a sparsely populated rural area. A place where you can buy milk at Dollar General and legally practice target shooting in your backyard.
With a median household income of about $37,000, about three-fifths of the county’s average, it’s a place that’s mostly known for its poverty – if it’s known for anything at all. But it also provides opportunity for an increasingly diversifying population, including Latinos – many of them Spanish speakers – along with Vietnamese and other Asians.
While driving through Oaklawn, it’s not unusual to spot a dilapidated home next door to a renovated one, a sign that the area remains attractive for those who want to buy a cheap home to fix or flip.
But Oaklawn’s haphazard access to governance, which gives the community limited options to address its great needs, remains a hindrance to improving the quality of life.
Research out of the University of California, Berkeley School of Social Welfare found that a community’s lack of incorporation status is a “structural determinant of health.” In other words, the lack of local government representation leads to political exclusion and a diminished access to resources, especially for low-income residents of color.
Oaklawn resident Tonya Vidales moved to the area with her husband 15 years ago. She sees a community that doesn’t get much in the way of help, so it simply chooses to make do with what it has.
“The problem I have seen … is the services people need to better their circumstances are limited or are too expensive,” she says. “People are content with the bare minimum we have out here because we’re limited.”
Is Oaklawn too expensive to be annexed?
The challenge of providing affordable housing is an issue just about everywhere, and certainly in Wichita, as the costs of home buying and renting have exploded in recent years. Oaklawn’s origins lie in the housing challenges of another era.
In 1951, a plat was submitted to Wichita’s planning department for a development of 1,100 single-family units to confront a housing shortage correlated with the Boeing Military Airplane Company’s employment needs during the Korean War.
The Defense Production Administration declared Wichita as a critical area, immediately authorizing emergency defense housing, despite opposition from the Wichita Real Estate Board, which cited a lack of financing for private builders.
A 260-acre tract southeast of Wichita was purchased for $271,000 then immediately flipped into an $11 million development, with four subsidiary companies splitting the cost: 1,034 units in Oaklawn and 190 units in Sunview Heights, immediately to the north.
By June 1952, the first units were ready. The idea was that the community would be “mostly self-sufficient,” according to the Derby Historical Society and Museum, with its own water and sewer utilities and rental rates that included trash service.
“The flurry of construction near Boeing created concerns for leaders in nearby Derby,” who worried Wichita’s growth could swallow their town, according to historical society records. But officials in Derby’s school district saw it as an expansion opportunity by consolidating with several rural districts to serve Oaklawn and other areas near Boeing and the Wichita Municipal Airport.
That boom eventually went bust. Boeing cut back production in 1959, sparking an exodus from the neighborhood.
The abandonment in the community reached staggering proportions, with a 1964 survey from the Wichita Association of Homebuilders showing that 688 of the community’s 1,405 houses were vacant. As the years passed, the area developed a blighted reputation but eventually stabilized with a mix of homeowners and renters drawn there by two key factors – cheap housing and access to nearby jobs.
Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Howell lived in Oaklawn for about a year when he was a kid. Now it’s within the district he represents. And there don’t appear to be easy answers for addressing Oaklawn’s problems.
He doubts there’s much interest in Wichita extending a hand to the neighborhood. “Would Wichita be interested in annexing Oaklawn? Well, the quick answer is no,” he says. “They don’t want to have to provide services (for Oaklawn).”
When asked for comment on Howell’s statement, Megan Lovely, communications manager for the City of Wichita, directed this reporter to a state statute, stating that no city can annex land within an improvement district. The Oaklawn Improvement District would have to dissolve for its land to be open for annexation.
“As the City of Wichita cannot annex Oaklawn because of the Oaklawn improvement district, it would be the purview of Sedgwick County to provide other resources to this community,” Lovely wrote in an email.
Howell summarizes Oaklawn’s pains through taxes and mill levies – the tax rate applied to the assessed value of a home.
“Every taxing jurisdiction has people who have the ability to pay taxes, and people who use more government. … Every taxing jurisdiction has both,” Howell says. “So, we think about the state of Kansas. Wichita is a net. We pay more taxes to the state than we get back from the state. Where are those taxes going? Western Kansas. That’s taxing jurisdiction.”
In his district, District 5, Howell says people rely on county services more, painting a picture of an impoverished socioeconomic reality: single-parent families, minimum wage workers, the unemployed and those with lower education levels.
“You’ll see a community that, overall, is struggling with life. That’s the problem. So what do we do?” Howell says. “I look at this as a place of ministry. There’s a lot of great needs there.”
A community cleanup
In her role with the Oaklawn Improvement District, Sisco primarily focuses on quality of life issues, namely mending conditions that interfere with residents’ use or enjoyment of the community.
The biggest concern? It’s often a cleanup.
“Every time I get a new county commissioner, I sucker them into doing a cleanup for us,” Sisco says. But those cleanups “end up being a nightmare. Every time,” Sisco says. “I don’t know if we hoard (our trash) or what.”
Howell and Sisco both recall a county-sponsored community clean up in 2015, organized jointly by Howell and the improvement district. Residents were invited to drop off items – from filled trash bags to old mattresses – over the course of two days.
The demand was so massive, the cleanup filled more than 100 dumpsters. Mattresses showed up by the hundreds, Howell says. Bulldozers from public works were reportedly called to help.
Howell speculates that some of the trash wasn’t from the average resident, but landlords emptying out their properties. Sisco thinks that people from nearby communities heard of the cleanup and decided to take advantage too.
“The county can’t make (any cleanup) Oaklawn-only, because it’s funded through Sedgwick County money. They can’t send everybody else away,” she says.
The problems with cleanups are compounded by the economic conditions in Oaklawn, Howell says.
“Unfortunately, one of the problems is that every residence is supposed to have trash service. But a lot of people in Oaklawn don’t,” Howell says. “Why? Because when they have to choose between paying for their next meal for their kids versus trash service … they’re not going to have trash. It’s not surprising.”
Besides garbage, Oaklawn struggles with another health issue: dilapidated homes.
“There are plenty of empty, rotting homes around,” says Vidales. “Yes, there is always trash in the community, that’s because people get large items and can’t afford to have it hauled off or have the resources to move it anywhere. Many empty lots. Yards are overgrown.”
The improvement district collects all nuisance reports on residences, including submissions made anonymously. A nuisance is a legal term referring to a condition or use of a property that interferes with the neighbors’ use or enjoyment of their property. Kansas law allows a governing body to intervene on reported nuisances, either wholly removing them or diminishing them.
Sisco led this reporter through a tour of the improvement district’s headquarters, a building that holds its office, Oaklawn’s senior center and a state social services branch. She stops at a metal cabinet, yanking open a drawer to reveal its contents: hundreds of nuisance reports.
“Inside this here, is, well, not my nightmare, but …” Sisco ran her hand across manila tabs, trailing off. “When you go on (our) Facebook page and see comments like ‘We don’t do anything for cleanup’ that’s what this here is.”
In 2022, the improvement district cleared 39 abatements, according to data provided by Sisco. One additional abatement was handed off to the county, a move for nuisances that don’t get resolved by the improvement district’s timeline and are considered a “menace and dangerous to the health of inhabitants of Sedgwick County.”
The improvement district has the power to abate nuisances and pass along the costs to property owners. But district officials often prefer for property owners to remedy nuisances on their own, which reduces the district’s workload but also can require patience.
Sisco referenced a case of a homeowner taking over a year to finish cleaning up his property, but the improvement district remained flexible with his deadline, granting extensions when he appeared at the board meetings with proof of progress.
“People forget that it costs money to haul stuff away,” Sisco says. “And not all of us are physically able.”
Even those with flexible finances might put off addressing home issues in favor of other priorities, like Vidales.
“My house has cracks in the foundations, cracks in the walls, poor insulation, outdated plumbing,” she says. “We have plenty of land to build on or improve our home. … But for my story, anything we need fixed has to wait because all my ‘extra’ funds goes for basic living and paying for immigration things.” Vidales and her husband are working to update his immigration status.
The strains of living in Oaklawn have, to some degree, gotten worse. When Sisco and Vidales moved into the community, there was a laundromat and grocery store. But both of those closed, further reducing the community’s access to basic necessities.
To alleviate the strain, the improvement district provides commodities to all residents within its 260 acres.
The Emergency Food Assistance Program distributes canned fruit or vegetables, meat, pasta and more to low-income households through the improvement district. The office gives out food on the first Thursday and Friday of the month. The district also works with Meals on Wheels, Giving the Basics, and one Oaklawn resident who continually donates socks for her neighbors.
In addition, there are free toiletries for those who need them. Inside of the district office women’s bathroom stands a large bathroom cabinet with half a dozen drawers crammed with shampoo, conditioner, soap, sanitizer and more, for those who, Sisco says, “feel as though they need help but they don’t want to ask.”
“We, as an improvement district, go way past what we should or shouldn’t be doing, to a certain extent,” Sisco says.
“We do a lot of things that’s not within our bounds to do but they’re all important. They’re needed. We’re a low-income area. You look at our houses – I don’t get a whole lot of property taxes off my houses.”
Vidales says she’s heard that the community has come a long way from “what it was” but when it’s a struggle to provide the basics, anything beyond that can be seen as an extravagance.
“There isn’t much of a safe recreational area for families to use, like a tennis court or swimming pool. There’s a splash pad, but that’s different,” she says. “The problem is (the Oaklawn Improvement District) probably couldn’t afford those services even if they wanted to.”
Oaklawn’s shifting landscape
Despite its challenges, Oaklawn remains an attractive place for newcomers to find affordable places to live. As a result, the community is diversifying, accelerating a trend that started in the 1990s.
According to data from the 2021 American Community Survey, about 27% of residents within Oaklawn’s census tract identify as Hispanic or Latino. Another data point from the same survey notes that 21.3% of the population over 5 years old speaks Spanish at home.
“The community is changing,” Sisco says. “We’re getting more Spanish-speaking people in. We’ve always had Asians and Vietnamese.”
Despite that growth, the improvement district’s efforts to measure up to it are stunted. Sisco says that no one within the office is bilingual. Instead, the office has a machine to provide live translation for any visitor who can’t speak English.
“I want to try to communicate with people. We get a lot of Spanish speakers to request permits to add onto their homes,” she says.
No one can say for sure exactly what’s driving the neighborhood’s demographic changes. The influx of Latino residents could be driven by the opportunity to buy a cheap home and flip it. Others see the neighborhood becoming a refuge of sorts. Vidales wonders if there’s safety in numbers.
“Perhaps the heightened threat of deportations and separation of families caused that influx?” she says. “When you show you have a higher percentage of a population, it’s harder to take down community. … People don’t feel threatened, so they feel they can come out and be who they truly are.”
Plans fit for a shelf
It’s not uncommon for officials in Sedgwick County to periodically discuss ways to support Oaklawn more effectively. But it doesn’t appear those discussions have led to sustained action.
In 2002, the Wichita-Sedgwick County Metropolitan Area Planning Commission developed a neighborhood revitalization plan for Oaklawn, adopting it as an amendment into its County Comprehensive Plan.
The 50-page report finishes with a list of goals, such as recommending that Sedgwick County designate the Oaklawn/Sunview area as a “special district,” to create “supporting codes and regulations to promote decent, safe, and sanitary housing stock … and prevent conditions presenting a health or safety risk, contributing to neighborhood degradation, or that are determined to be a nuisance.”
The Journal asked Howell if he had any knowledge of the 2002 report. He says no, and seemed surprised at the report existing in the first place. He doesn’t see much of a chance of Oaklawn getting more attention from Wichita.
“I’d say this to anybody over there in the City (Hall): Wichita’s having enough problems managing their problems they have today,” Howell says. “They don’t have enough money to take care of the streets. They are underfunding their police officers. The public safety is lacking. They have over a billion dollars in debt.
“To think they would actually have the resources to extend more services to an impoverished community … it doesn’t sound very likely to me,” he says. “Maybe it was a nice discussion, but I don’t know how real that was ever going to be.”
Sisco remembers the plan, saying the housing director at the time, who recently retired, asked her to commit $5,000 toward the plan.
“I told him I did not mind helping to fund it just as long as it did not end up on a shelf somewhere.”
Lovely, the communications manager for Wichita, listed the services that the city provides open to Oaklawn residents:
“The city of Wichita offers many community programs, especially through our libraries and community service centers to both Wichita residents and non-residents, including free computers, tax help, check outs, Filling the Gap free lunch programs, assistance with water bill relief and more,” she says. “The city also provides transit and supports public safety efforts in the community.”
Regardless of promises, one sentiment remains unwavering: Those living in Oaklawn want better for it. They see it as a gem that needs a little shining.
Vidales says her family moved to Oaklawn to raise her kids in a safe, healthy environment. Yes, Oaklawn was affordable, but she says the community has been a “real nice area” too.
Enveloping the Oaklawn Improvement District’s building is Idlewild Park, a labor of love maintained solely by neighbors. It’s an expansive greenery, with a lawn and a splash pad. (“Which is $55,000 a year. Drives me crazy, but the kids enjoy it,” says Sisco.) A playground there is scheduled to be updated.
“You look out there and that’s a beautiful park,” Sisco says. “And this is only the (day)light of it. You come out here in the evening time, the deer come all the way up. Five or six of them!”
A version of this article appears in the Summer 2023 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.