Roeland Park council candidates on the issues: Housing affordability

Last month, we asked our readers what issues they wanted to hear the candidates running for local office address ahead of this fall’s local elections primary. Based on the input we received, we developed a five-item questionnaire for candidates running for city council in Roeland Park.

Today we publish the candidates’ responses to item five:

Living expenses in Johnson County have seen double digit increases in the last 4 years. Homeownership is becoming a challenge for people working in a number of professions such as teachers, firefighters, and police officers in Johnson County. Costs for individuals, including those on fixed incomes, who own their home without a mortgage have continued to rise. How would you address the need for more varied priced housing options in Johnson County at large and Roeland Park specifically? (This question was submitted by the Johnson County Health Equity Network, which focuses on housing affordability, stability and safety).

City Council Ward 2

Benjamin Dickens

I have lived paycheck-to-paycheck. I have sat at my kitchen table and wondered which bills could be skipped that month so I could make sure the house was taken care of. I know, first hand, how scary it can be for those on limited incomes to watch their housing costs increase while income sources remain stagnant. After talking with my neighbors, I’ve found many who share those same concerns.

We must acknowledge that the issue of keeping home ownership affordable cannot be solved overnight; rather, it is a growing issue that affects cities all across the nation and it’s imperative that we seek out different avenues in order to begin dealing with this challenge in meaningful ways here at home.

One avenue I would explore is the creation of a housing planning commission. This commission would evaluate where we are now and where we need to go, if we are to be competitive in the region and allow all of our residents, regardless of income, to remain in their homes. Under this commission, we would bring in private and nonprofit partners who are skilled in building and/or restoring safe, quality, multi-family residences. These partners would focus on providing aid to people who want to live in our great city.

As your council person, I will also push for the city to create an equity program. This program would aim to help our neighbors who are in fear of losing their homes, so that the city can assist in preventing such from happening. With so many in Roeland Park burdened by mortgages or rent which exceed 30% of their incomes, we have to do better for those who are struggling each month to make ends meet.

Roeland Park already offers several income-based, home maintenance, and utility assistant programs which aim to offer a neighbor-to-neighbor “hand up” when others fall on hard times. The challenge of keeping housing affordable in today’s true workforce is ongoing and more difficult with each passing day. Our civic leaders must address it with more focus and energy than ever before.

When planning for the future to keep housing affordable in Roeland Park, my primary concern, as your council person, will always remain with our neighbors who are most in need. When elected, I promise the most vulnerable will always be at the forefront of my vision and action in Roeland Park

Leonard Tocco

This is a difficult question and not necessarily one that a small city like Roeland Park can answer by itself, but it certainly matters. One thing people love about Roeland Park – and has sustained our city over the course of time – is our affordable homes that are a great places for families. If even smaller homes start to become impossible to afford, then Roeland Park – as with any other city – suffers. The issue is when government tries to craft a solution. One definitive thing we can do is not increase the price of housing with a high property tax rate. That impacts not only home owners but renters, who see the cost of high taxes built into their rent.

City Council Ward 3

Galen Hansen

At the August 19, 2019 Governing Body Workshop, it was agreed that Roeland Park would participate in the Johnson County Municipalities Housing Study/Task Force. Participation in this initiative will help to determine what steps can be taken to provide affordable, stable, and safe housing.

I support the participation on the task force, as well as considering proposed solutions from other third parties. The Council will then determine whether or not to escalate the issue to a higher priority if workable solutions are identified. This approach will also allow the Council to focus its efforts on business development and promotion rather than independently seeking housing solutions.

There are also some actions that the Council can take now to help make housing affordable for the long-term.

The first action is to lower the property tax burden on home owners by decreasing the property tax mill rate. This would be possible by decreasing the substantial accumulated cash reserves and financing long-term projects with debt instead of cash. I believe a rate reduction of at least 5-7 points is possible, which result in annual tax savings of at least $120 and $170. Although not significant to some, it can be meaningful to people on a tight budget.

A second action is to ensure the ‘teardown/rebuild’ policy that has been considered provides clear guidance as to the income levels that the City hopes to attract, in addition to the size and design of the homes. Nearby cities are experiencing a situation where homes are being purchased at or near market price only to be torn down and replaced with a much larger and more expensive home. Roeland Park must control its own destiny in this matter, and I hope additional public discussions will be forthcoming.

A third action that could be considered is to listen closely to the ideas of our residents. One idea that a residents shared with me during a campaign visit was to for the City to compile a list of home repair and improvement companies that are licensed in the City and with estimated price range for different projects. The idea originated from the resident’s trouble finding contractors that were both licensed in the City but also reasonably priced. In theory this could save time, money, and frustration for financially strapped homeowners.

Trisha Brauer

Roeland Park is currently one of the most affordable places to live in Johnson County. Both the average sale price of a home and the property tax costs are below the county average. We have diverse housing stock both in size and price and a large apartment complex that fits workforce budgets rather than the high-end budgets of the luxury complexes popping up to the south. Additionally, the City has many income-based home assistance programs to help with the high costs of home maintenance and repair. That is why programs like Neighbors Helping Neighbors, Community Revitalization, and Johnson County Minor Home Rehabilitation are critical. I also work directly with nonprofits in the metro area who offer home repairs assistance and have expressed interested in partnering with Roeland Park. My goal is to bring these partnerships to our community to provide even more resources for our residents.

The Kansas Leadership Center’s in-depth coverage has provided excellent information on the complexity of this issue. If we as a community believe job-creation is valuable to our economy, we must also prioritize affordable housing for a workforce of all income levels within a close proximity of those jobs. In Roeland Park, our retail economy runs on mostly big box stores and fast food chains. Those employees need a close place to live on the small wages they earn. The same goes for our city staff. If not addressed, even median income earners (teachers, firefighters, police officers, nurses) and seniors who need to down-size will have a difficult time affording a place to live while also affording healthy food and medical care.

While experts in our region are still in “diagnosis mode”, local governments across the nation have been attacking the problem in a variety of ways. Roeland Park can use the lessons learned in other areas to apply new concepts of affordable housing to our area. While not every attempt at progress on this issue will translate to Roeland Park, experts have suggested the following: work to reduce the public stigma around workforce housing, better utilize tax abatements for new and existing homes, and reducing regulations involving setbacks and density requirements while easing or waiving fees and layering financial incentives, improved wages, and working with the building industry to identify creative long-term solutions and incentives for them to focus on building affordably.

City Council Ward 4

A.J. Cameron

Affordable housing is a concern for people in all forms of employment. We hear a lot about ‘affordable housing,’ but what defines affordable housing? As mentioned, previously, many residents are concerned and/or upset by their ever-increasing, personal-property taxes, which threaten the affordability of remaining a resident of Roeland Park. This is especially true of retirees, and those on limited or fixed incomes.

A person can go to just about any city within the metro and see ‘pack-&-stacks’ (retail on the street level and apartments above the retail) cluttering the cities. Density is the watchword of those pushing the pack-&-stack model of living. This might be appropriate for actual, high-density cities, but Roeland Park and the Kansas City metro, as a whole, do not suffer from this situation, even though the ‘solutions’ pushed elsewhere are being pushed here, too. Based upon my conversations with the residents of Ward 4, they wish to retain the existing, single-family housing that has made our city the attraction to those who live here.

Patrick Tuohey, at The Show-Me Institute, authored a recent column, entitled “Want More Housing? Get Out of the Way.” Included within the column was this, from a 2018 paper:

“Regulation imposed by all levels of government accounts for an average of 32.1 percent of multifamily development costs, according to new research, released today, by the National Associationof Homebuilders (NAHB) and the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC). In fact, that number can reach as high as 42.6 percent.” Additionally, a study in 2016, concluded: “… on average, regulations imposed by government, at all levels, account for 24.3 percent of the final price of a new, single-family home, built for sale.”

Sometimes, exactly because the government is trying to help solve a problem, the problem becomes worse. Seattle for Growth, nee Smart Growth Seattle, published in 2015: “Affordable housing projects have many unique costs, and often cost more, because of financing, construction, and labor requirements. Affordable housing projects can be more expensive than market-rate, due to some of these unique costs.” It is unlikely that these situations have improved over the past four years.

What could offer more affordability, stability, safety, and peace of mind, than building equity and becoming mortgage-free? City government (and any government) should be like a good referee in sports, holding players (contractors, builders, etc.) accountable, but not interfering with the day-to-day lives of its residents.

Michael Rebne

People in service careers like teaching, firefighting, or police work get paid less money for similar levels of education than other professions, yet tend to make good neighbors because our careers and lives are directly connected to community. However, increasing housing costs in Roeland Park, similar to other cities in Johnson County, is making our city more and more unaffordable for these folks along with many others. This is a problem for us because we pride ourselves on being a diverse and welcoming community.

I am ready to get to work as your city councilor to address this problem. Here some ways I think we can start:

  • Collaborate with Johnson County government and Mid America Regional Council, which are beginning to take these issues more seriously
  • Shift our language to Workforce Housing because our economy and community life depend on workers having a reliable and stable place to live.
  • Continue to fund the Roeland Park Home Maintenance Program, which assists qualified homeowners with essential housing upkeep.
  • Work with employers in Roeland Park to give their employees an opportunity to afford Roeland park housing
  • Consider incentives for homebuilders to either contribute to or set aside some workforce housing assistance.
  • Look at the impact of new builds on the affordability of existing housing
  • Consider local property tax as only one small component of affordability so that we can focus on more sustainable and impactful solutions.

Roeland Park is a strong and vibrant community because we have housing that meets the need of people at many different income levels. However, that has been changing rapidly over the last several years. In order to support our diverse community in both philosophy and practice, we need to take a serious look at affordable housing and take some positive steps. Preserving Roeland Park’s identity is worth it.