County Update: Commissioner Fast says collaboration is key to increasing housing options

County Commissioner Becky Fast.

Each week we provide members of the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners the opportunity to share an update on what issues are catching their attention. This week, we have a column from District 1 Commissioner Becky Fast.

Housing affordability is a critical issue in Johnson County and in larger metropolitan areas across the nation. Johnson County’s cost of living has grown by double digits across all household sizes since 2014 according to the Economic Policy Institute. Housing costs is a key component of this increase.

If these trends continue, will young adults and families be able to rent an apartment or buy a home? Will longtime residents be able to retire here? First time home buyers in my First Commission District are met with “sticker shock” when greeted with an average sale price well over $300,000 in some portions of my district and few homes available for under $200,000.

In Johnson County, 30 percent of jobs now pay less than $15 per hour. Thus, one in four Johnson County residents is cost burdened by spending more than 30 percent on housing. In 2008, the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners created a housing taskforce on which I was an appointee. The taskforce produced an affordable housing action plan, but it was never fully implemented.

The good news is housing is now a higher priority as more community leaders and advocates are speaking out and raising awareness at the county and city level. Overland Park residents advocated to include affordable housing in their strategic plan, “Forward OP.”

In July, the Mid-America Regional Council’s First Tier Suburbs Coalition hosted a regional housing summit. The housing summit brought together elected leaders and municipal staff to exchange ideas for a regional affordable housing plan. A key focus was on the “missing middle” housing options.

The “missing middle” in Johnson County is the lack of housing options somewhere between high-rise apartments and single-family homes. The “missing middle” often results from restrictive zoning and land use codes preventing the construction of an array of housing – duplexes, triplexes, and inexpensive options.

Yearly population increases in Johnson County make it difficult for our county to meet the demand with “building new.” A more realistic goal is to balance new construction with the revitalization of existing housing stock. Housing rehabilitation programs offered by Johnson County and city government only assist a small number of homeowners as state and federal funding sources have been stagnant for years.

Housing that is affordable to workers spurs economic development and in turn enhances a community’s appeal to residents. Subsequently, in the last two years, trust funds have been created in Denver, Charlotte, and Kansas City, Missouri to preserve and promote affordable housing. In 2017, Lawrence voters by a large margin approved a proposal to renew a city sales tax of 1/20th of a cent and redirected it to an affordable housing fund.

As your District 1 Commissioner, I have been a strong and vocal advocate of developing a variety of housing options and adding housing to the County’s two-year strategic planning priorities. Currently, our county management team is collaborating with Johnson County cities and United Community Services on a housing study and taskforce. A request for proposal will be issued to examine Johnson County’s housing market including an assessment of our current and future housing needs.

Lastly, it’s important for Johnson County’s city, county, and business leaders to engage with residents and coordinate regionally to develop a plan to increase housing opportunities. And with that in mind, we can—and must—support the needs of the homeless, seniors, veterans, and persons with disabilities.

Housing has long served as the foundation for wealth building in America, but the affordability challenges in recent years have made it harder and harder for so many to reach the American dream. If we’re going to solve this seemingly insurmountable problem and ensure that every Johnson County resident has a place to call home, we’re going to have to work together.