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.
What exactly is it that a city can do to create more affordable housing?
There are plenty of alternatives being tried. Some think tiny-home villages – like a highly successful and touted veterans community in Kansas City, Missouri – might be the answer. But tenant advocates say while it’s a great option, it’s hardly the ideal for many.
Other metropolitan areas have considered allowing existing homeowners to build accessory dwelling units – dubbed granny units – where it makes sense. Designers have suggested houses made from 3-D printed parts as another possibility.
But none of those options is expected to gain much traction in the Kansas City metro area. Right now, the region is instead in diagnosis mode.
The Urban Land Institute defines “workforce or affordable housing” as housing that is affordable to households earning 60% to 120% of an area’s median income. In Johnson County, those incomes would range from $48,720 a year to $97,440 a year. Workforce housing could help anyone from a senior citizen on a fixed income to a recent graduate or lower income worker who don’t qualify for Section 8 housing.
The National League of Cities has taken a keen interest in the Kansas City region this year after the First Suburbs Coalition and the Mid-America Regional Council won a grant to help study the housing issue. The league hired a consultant to study workforce housing. The study is still underway, but an initial data assessment indicated that Kansas and Missouri suburbs need to rethink their approaches.
Some of the work confirms what local officials already knew: that older housing stock can face hefty maintenance expenses that puts it out of reach for many lower-wage employees. In Johnson County’s wealthiest suburbs, the study confirmed that many of the basic community helpers are not able to live among the residents they serve.
Among the options summit strategists have suggested city officials consider:
- Create a regional workforce housing awareness campaign to lessen the public stigma.
- Better utilize tax abatements for new and existing homes and homebuyer assistance programs.
The consultant also recommended that local officials actively encourage the development of workforce housing by reducing regulations involving setbacks and density requirements while easing or waiving some fees and layering financial incentives.
In Johnson County, some small steps have been taken. Overland Park and Lenexa included affordable housing as priorities for future growth. The Overland Park City Council also approved a controversial development plan to build smaller, affordable homes – priced at about $250,000 – in an older section of the city where a few lots went undeveloped for decades.
Neighbors argued that a developer wanted to put too many houses on small plats. City Council members disagreed, saying the homes were financially attainable. Meanwhile, time-worn patterns of development in Johnson County – from building McMansions to trendy teardowns – continue.
Officials continue to compile more information about affordable housing. As the National League of Cities continues its work, Johnson County will begin its own housing study. United Community Services teamed up with the county and several cities this fall to conduct a housing study.
Julie Brewer, executive director of United Community Services, thinks its findings will shape the discussion, although a Johnson County Community Development Office housing market needs and analysis released in 2004 identified many of the issues being discussed presently but did little to move the needle.
Maybe it’s an income problem?
Not everybody who studies the affordable housing issue is convinced that building more housing is the solution.
Some, like Kirk McClure, professor of urban planning at the University of Kansas School of Public Affairs and Administration, think affordable housing is at adequate levels for Johnson County unlike, say, Seattle and Los Angeles. Why simply build more housing, which will also eventually be marked up? The real solution, he believes, is improved wages, increased minimum wage and wage assistance.
“They need rents below $500,” he says. The problem is that the price of land doesn’t allow for that without subsidies.
“Nobody can afford to purchase, maintain, pay taxes on housing that you rent out for, say, $350 a month,” he says.
Although McClure thinks the best way to fix the problem is by encouraging federal officials to help with more targeted subsidies, he says there is room for better city and state cooperation. Kansas has a little used program called mortgage revenue bonds that allow the state to offer loans to moderate-income, first-time homebuyers.
McClure also says the state is still heavily influenced by real estate agents, builders and developers, who have long shaped the housing narrative in Kansas.
“We need to be guided more in serving our needs,” he says. “We’ve got to start having the Johnson County delegation show some backbone and testify against the homebuilders.”
Real estate groups have long been successful in Topeka, most recently pushing the Legislature to pass a law banning cities from forcing developers to set aside a portion of new construction for affordable units because it infringed on the rights of property owners and violated free market principles.
Affordable housing advocates argue that the law makes no sense, especially when developers sometimes receive taxpayer-funded subsidies to finance luxury construction at the expense of schools, libraries and others.
However, builders and developers point out that putting the onus on homebuilders to increase the amount of affordable housing penalizes their industry, which is already heavily regulated.
“You’re basically just taking money out of one pocket and handing it to another,” says Shawn Woods, the president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Kansas City.
Instead he’d like to see cities working with the building industry to come up with solutions.
“It can be done, but it’s going to take some thinking outside the box. I don’t think the way to do that is to penalize a developer for building a bigger house,” Woods says.
McClure thinks local officials need to get out their toolboxes and start being creative. Play the game, McClure says, by doing things like increasing water connection fees with a caveat: “We’ll reduce them if you set aside 20%” of the units for workforce housing.
“There are creative ways to do this,” he says. “You’ve got to connect to a water system in order to have water.”
A place to work and live?
As she mulls her housing situation, Judy Intfen, the counseling secretary at Mill Valley High School (read more about her in Part 1) wishes cities would think about someone like her.
She doesn’t want a tiny house or a single-family home. She’s content to rent. Intfen once had an ownership share in the well-known Paddy O’Quigley’s Pub & Grille. For more than 21 years, the Irish pub was mainstay at 119th Street and Roe Avenue in Leawood.
Back then, Intfen did everything from managing, hiring and training staff to payroll and more. She spent 60-plus hours a week at her small business. She didn’t have time to attend to home ownership. One year she went without a salary as the business weathered the recession. Making a down payment and paying a mortgage was one thing. Confronting the inevitable home repair emergency was another.
“I don’t want my furnace to go out. I don’t want my roof to leak. There’s no way I could afford to get those things fixed,” she says.
Intfen just wants something affordable in a safe environment. “I want a bedroom, a kitchen, living room, storage. I want the basics,” she says.
Back at Mill Valley High School, students and school staff seem to enjoy having Intfen around the building.
She likens her job to a flight controller at times. She will likely get to know every student. She’ll try to learn their names, and often a lot more, before sending them off to meet with the right counselor. The students have noticed. They dedicated a full page to her in the 2018 yearbook.
“I love it,” she says of her job. “I love the kids, love the administration. I really do enjoy every aspect.”
There’s certainly a place for her to work, but the question policymakers in Johnson County will face in the years to come is whether something needs to be done to ensure she and others in her situation also have a place to live.
This is part three 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.