Priced Out: Increasing access to affordable housing in JoCo is a health issue. But the politics of doing so are tough

Dawn Bormann - October 15, 2019 11:50 am
Veronica Stogsdill and her husband, David, have a “master bedroom” in the unfinished basement of her parents’ modest-ranch style home in Roeland Park. The couple and their children were forced to move when David lost his job. Photo by Jeff Tuttle/The Journal

A growing number of workers can’t find affordable housing in the state’s wealthiest county. With cheaper housing disappearing, pricier options proliferating and rents rising, Johnson County residents working modest-paying jobs in offices, public safety and even public schools, among others, face the prospect of increasingly missing out on the suburban good life there. But while nonprofit activism is increasing awareness of the problem, there’s little clarity about how city government — and local candidates vying for your vote this fall — might contribute to addressing it. This week, we’re running Priced Out, a series on housing affordability issues in Johnson County and beyond reported by The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center.

Residents in Johnson County often protest even luxury apartments encroaching on their single-family homes. How would they feel about homes or apartments dubbed “affordable or workforce housing,” which the Urban Land Institute defines as housing that is affordable to households earning 60% to 120% of an area’s median income.

Housing, in conjunction with highways and public schools, has shaped the county’s growth for the last 70 years. The post-World War II boom for car-oriented suburbs was heavily fueled by housing. (Prior to the civil rights movement, housing was mainly reserved for white people since black people and other minorities were often barred from buying by restrictive covenants.)

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The housing boom in turn helped bring shopping centers and office parks. The single-family suburban home is part of a formula that’s led to the county becoming the state’s richest and most populous county. But patterns of expansion in Johnson County have resulted in developments that not only provide access to good schools, safe neighborhoods and other amenities. They can confer status. Little wonder that affordable housing is seen as a threat.

Johnson County is a challenging market even for developers who specialize in affordable apartments, says Matt Gillam, partner with Overland Property Group.

The group uses federal low-income tax credits to build or rehabilitate apartment complexes in several states including Kansas, setting aside a certain number of housing for qualified residents who fall short of median incomes. Gillam’s business also develops what he calls luxury senior living, including a golf course community in Leawood where units go for $4,000 to $9,000 a month.

But affordable developments can be risky because if the project starts to lose money, Gillam must make up the loss for years. He needs to build efficient, sustainable buildings that stand up to years of wear. The finances can be challenging and everything depends on getting a share of the state’s hard-to-secure housing tax credits to help off-set high land prices.

Then, too, there are the protesters. More than once Gillam invested about $100,000 on a project that later didn’t get off the ground because city officials decided neighbors wouldn’t accept the affordable housing concept.

That’s not the case everywhere. Gillam points out that Dodge City elected officials stood up to nearly 200 upset homeowners and approved a workforce apartment complex anyway.

“Every single one of those neighbors now say how nice it is,” Gillam says. “A lot of them have kids and grandparents living in it now.”

Johnson County’s housing prices will only intensify without interventions, he says, based on his experience in other communities. Federal lawmakers support low-income housing tax credits, which are different from the federal rental voucher program known as Section 8, with bipartisan support, but far more money is needed, he says.

Free-market developers and builders can’t be expected to offer lower rent, he says. Banks wouldn’t finance the project.

“The free market will not correct this problem,” he says. “The finances don’t work for it to correct itself. The problem will only get worse.”

Without affordable housing, advocates say, the county faces the prospect of more and more people being priced out of the housing market – and not just those whose occupations are typically thought of as low income. An elementary teacher, firefighter, police patrol officer or registered nurse living alone cannot afford the average home if they are making a median wage in Johnson County, according to United Community Services’ data.

It’s important to note, says Julie Brewer, executive director of United Community Services, that 1 in 3 Johnson County households are single heads of households.

A Burden to Health

One reason that affordable housing has risen to the top of the list among nonprofit advocates is they have come to see affordable housing as a health issue. United Community Services spent the last several years looking for the best way to affect health outcomes in Johnson County. It kept coming back to one major factor: housing costs.

Too many Johnson Countians are burdened by mortgages and rent that exceed 30% of their gross income, Brewer says. It’s proportionately worse for lower-income families. About 75% of Johnson Countians making between $20,000 and $34,999 spend more than 30% of their pay on housing. When housing becomes such a large portion of an overall budget, residents do what they can to get by, Brewer says, even if it means not buying medication or healthy food.

Housing inventory mirrors the problem. There were about 13,500 fewer homes available at the appraised value range of between $150,000 to $249,000 in 2017 compared to 2007. The hot spot was midrange homes valued at $250,000 to $399,999, a category in which about 17,000 units were added in 10 years, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

That’s happened while nearly 40% of the jobs in Johnson County can be sorted into three occupational groups: office and administrative support, sales, and food prep and serving. The median wage for those groups was $35,034, $31,569 and $19,779 respectively, according to the Kansas Department of Labor’s 2018 Wage Survey.

But political pressure for action is likely to build, especially if more seniors find themselves priced out of the market and make their voices heard come election time.

Increasingly Stuck

Communities are already seeing seniors that can’t afford to downsize because there isn’t a financially diverse array of senior housing. It means new families will have to go elsewhere to buy their first homes.

“We love our neighborhood schools. Neighborhood schools only stay neighborhood schools if the community is re-greened,” meaning, newer, younger families move in, Brewer says.

County Commissioner Becky Fast is among the officials who have raised concerns about housing affordability in Johnson County.

Johnson County Commissioner Becky Fast, who based her last campaign in part on affordable housing, has heard from several retirees who feel stuck. Senior housing is too expensive, but maintaining a home is costly, too. The only alternative is often to leave the county entirely.

Fast thinks affordable housing is part of a strong economy that attracts jobs.

“It’s part of an array of a strong, healthy, safe community, along with good roads and good schools,” she says. “It’s hard to attract businesses when there isn’t the housing supply to bring those businesses here.”

It’s disheartening to Fast to see residents with deep roots in her northeast district struggle. Generations of families have grown up around the same churches and schools as their grandparents. Their children can’t afford to come back, and they can’t afford to stay, threatening deep community ties that sustain health.

“How do we make this a community that people can grow up here and retire here?” Fast wonders.

“That’s where it’s concerning to me. Are we becoming a Denver, where you have to then work an hour commute from where you live?”

Fast also worries about the health of families doubling up in small, postwar houses to pay the bills and take care of one another.

Moving in with family is exactly what Veronica, 38, and David Stogsdill, 37, were forced to do about five years ago. The couple and five children moved in with Veronica’s parents after David lost his heating and air conditioning job. The financial hit meant 10 people ended up living in a three-bedroom, one-bath Roeland Park home. Her parents are also guardians of their grandchild, who has autism.

David created a fourth bedroom in the unfinished basement by framing walls and lifting up the floor to accommodate for the water that leaks during rainstorms. Buying a door was too expensive, so they draped a drop cloth for privacy.

The Stogsdills both work, but David, who apprenticed as an HVAC technician with his dad, has yet to land a job that pays what he used to make, $18 an hour. These days he makes $11 an hour in a warehouse job while Veronica pulls in $14.42 an hour as an educational aide at a local school district.

Life is different now. Veronica and David gave up a second vehicle, and they carpool to work. A long dining table allows them to eat meals together. They map out showers, pitch in where talents and time allow with raising children and tending to basic needs. Their two oldest children have graduated and moved out.

If the Stogsdills moved away, it would mean leaving their family, whom they depend for support. Social workers contend those family connections are crucial so families aren’t further isolated.

But their reasons cut deeper. David knows the toll that moving and mobility can take on children after moving constantly as a child. Ultimately the reason the family stays is largely the same as any other Johnson County family. The high-quality schools offer opportunity.

“All of the staff that is at (their youngest daughter’s) school, they are so nice and kind to the students,” Veronica says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the staff or the principal.”

Originally, the family planned to be back on its own quickly, but their health has spiraled downward.

Kidney stones, a heart problem, a staph infection, an appendix removal and more left them with $75,000 in medical debt, Veronica says. It’s an all-too-common story reflected in research that shows how families become burdened by housing, utility and transportation costs. The effects of stress take a toll on health outcomes and life expectancies. Housing, as a big-ticket item, is a massive source of stress.

Brewer wonders how someone who loses their footing even for a short while can ever recover.

Expensive housing makes it almost impossible to launch families back into the middle class. Moving back to their old apartment is no longer an option for the Stogsdills. Their three-bedroom apartment’s rent went from $645 to $986 in five years, David says. The complex added the word “retreat” to its title as rent skyrocketed. It accepts Section 8 vouchers, but the family doesn’t qualify to get on the year-plus waiting list.

It’s a depressing thought for the Stogsdills. They wonder who elected officials are serving by offering tax incentives to developers or to businesses offering jobs below $12 an hour. Where will those employees live?

“I don’t know how much politicians are aware … that there is this gap,” Veronica says. “Everything we have seen that is being built around this area is luxury apartments and high-end retirement living.”

“Other people are in the same boat,” David says, pointing out that the family next door just took in their daughter, her fiance and two children. She’s a day care worker, and he’s in HVAC.

This is part two of a three-part series about affordable housing in Johnson County being published by the Shawnee Mission Post. The stories are adapted from The Journal, a magazine published in print and online at klcjournal.com by the Kansas Leadership Center, and are being used with permission.

Learn more about the affordable housing issue at The Journal’s launch event featuring Julie Brewer of United Community Services of Johnson County from 6-7:30 p.m. on Oct. 15. The discussion will be streamed live on Facebook. Tickets to attend the live event at the Kansas Leadership Center, 325 East Douglas, are available here.

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