Fr. Norman Rotert continues the fight for just housing

By Heather McNeill

It was the Second Vatican Council’s document The Church in the Modern World that inspired Fr. Norman Rotert’s philosophy about housing and other issues affecting the poor.

“It starts off with ‘the joys and the hopes and the suffering and the pain of the people of the world are the joys and the hopes and the pain and the suffering of the Church,’ and that became my motto for priesthood,” he explains, “You make the joys and the hopes, the sufferings and pains of those you’re assigned to work with your own. You walk with them, and if you’re going to walk with poor people, you’ve got to walk with their problems and work with them to help them solve their problems.”

And walk with them he did. For nearly 35 years, Rotert has been one of the most vocal and inspirational advocates for just housing in Kansas City. He first became aware of the lack of affordable and adequate housing as a young priest in the city’s Eastside and acted when few others would to revitalize the crumbling neighborhood surrounding his parish church. Since then, he has led many initiatives to address housing conditions in the most neglected neighborhoods.

Most recently, he headed the Housing Policy and Oversight Committee that submitted a report calling for major changes to the city’s approach to housing. The report was well-received, winning support from both Mayor Mark Funkhouser, whose own assessment as city auditor was a basis for this report, and city council members who honored the committee’s work in a formal resolution.

Now, roughly a year since the report was released, Rotert is chairing a new committee to oversee the implementation of the report’s recommendations. While this new committee does not have decision-making authority, it has what Rotert deems the “moral authority” to ensure that the city follows the recommendations, many of which address corruption, favoritism, and misuse of funds that have been indicative of the city’s past approach to housing.

“We were charged with the responsibility to see that the report is implemented, and if it isn’t implemented to report that to the City Council and to the community,” he says, “This is in the form of ordinances now. The City Council can change ordinances—they have that authority, but they haven’t so far.”

Specifically, the report calls for targeting scarce government and private funds to neighborhoods that have the infrastructure in place to support a community and the potential for future market success. Along with this targeting comes an emphasis on the transparency and accountability of funds. The report also addresses factors, such as predatory lending, that have prevented many people from successfully buying and maintaining homes.

Rotert first moved to urban Kansas City from rural Conway, Mo. Hundreds of vacant buildings surrounded his new parish church, some of which were being taken over as drug houses and storage sites for stolen goods. Concerned about the neighborhood’s future, he gathered a group of other community members to work with him to address the issue.

The group formed a not-for-profit housing corporation and started with a project to rehabilitate one house. The project dragged out, and the group lost money, but this did not stop Rotert.

“I went to real estate school that winter,” he explains, “I went down to Jeff City in the spring, took the exam, and got my broker’s license, and I became a real estate broker.”

With his new knowledge of real estate, Rotert went on to form another community development corporation. The new group managed to obtain much-needed funds that were being channeled away from the neighborhood and put the money into rehabilitating numerous houses.

While he moved onto other projects, the organization, now called Blue Hills Community Services, continued the work he started. In the nearly 35 years of its existence, the organization has been credited with building or rehabilitating 950 houses. The number amazes Rotert when he thinks back on that one house and his decision to act.

“I didn’t know what I was doing when I first started. I had never built a house, hardly even hammered a nail. I knew nothing about real estate,” he says, “It was a huge problem that was there. It was destroying the quality of life in the whole neighborhood and it had to be addressed, and so, trust God and go ahead.”

Rotert believes his trust in God is responsible for the success of the group’s work in the Blue Hills neighborhood. He mentions Mother Teresa’s belief in trusting the will of God rather than waiting for certainty as an influence in his own thinking.

“How are you going to be certain that you hear God’s will in your life? You don’t have certainty, but you can trust, and your instincts are God’s call to you,” he explains. “Sometimes it isn’t, but most of the time I think it is. So trust that it is, and stick your neck out there. Sometimes you fall. We fell the first shot at this, and spent two years falling, but when we tried again, the next time it worked, and it’s worked well for 34 years.”

As Rotert continues his work on the latest oversight committee, he remains hopeful that the report will serve to improve housing in Kansas City. He sees many areas of need that are outside the purview of the report, including the state of the schools and the large numbers of homeless that have been denied public housing. Still, he does not seem to be overwhelmed by the problems he sees, but rather works to address the issues within his reach, little by little.

“Basically if you work within your influence, gradually your area of influence expands. That’s the change I’ve had in this whole thing,” he humbly explains. “My area of influence keeps expanding. I still don’t know much about it, but it keeps expanding, and people gather around that do know something about it and things seem to happen.”

To read the Report of the Housing Policy and Oversight Committee go here. (PDF)

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