Overland Park hosting conversation on ‘small scale’ housing projects aimed at affordability

Overland Park has been using this image of a “cottage courtyard” in Seattle as an example of the kinds of small-scale development it’s looking into for the city.

City leaders took it to heart when Overland Park residents said they wanted a future city with more moderately priced housing options – ones that would be within the budgets of the janitors, fire fighters, restaurant workers and school aids who work in the city.

On Thursday, residents can find out what it means to make that happen, as the non-profit Incremental Development Alliance holds a public discussion of the benefits of “small scale” development. The presentation will be at 6 p.m. at the Matt Ross Community Center Crown Room.

The meeting is an attempt to explain some of the ways the city can change its planning rules to become more inviting to small projects like courtyard cottages, accessory backyard units and apartments attached above stores and offices, said Matthew Petty, senior faculty member for the training and consulting firm. It is an early-stage effort that could eventually result in changes in zoning and planning guidelines so that more such projects can be approved.

Modestly priced housing has been a perennial concern in Johnson County as home prices and apartment rents have continued to shoot upward. A check with online real estate data collector Zillow showed the current median price of homes listed in Overland Park at $395,000 and median rent at $1,650.

The rise in home values has stoked concerns that working people and the young adults the county is trying to attract could be priced out of the area altogether. A League of Women Voters study this year said nearly one in four county households are “cost burdened” meaning that they are spending more than 30 percent of their annual income on housing expenses.

Meanwhile, most new development sticks to the higher-priced homes and apartment market, Petty said. That’s because the complex and interrelated finance and planning infrastructure is more accessible to big developers who are mainly interested in those high end projects, he added.

Petty, who also spoke at a lecture in Overland Park last summer, said the types of development that are cost efficient are often illegal under zoning laws in most cities. Houses with a shared driveway, for instance, could not be built most places, even though they could keep costs down. Other arrangements, like homes or apartments arranged on a block around a courtyard and duplexes can also be good looking and affordable, he said.

Likewise garages converted to apartments and accessory housing behind an existing home are not typically allowed under city zoning rules, but should be re-legalized so people of modest means have more options, he said.

Looking at barriers to small development

The meeting Thursday is to let the public in on what’s being talked about, said city spokesperson Meg Ralph. But Incremental Development Alliance won’t be coming with a list of specific places to be redeveloped.

The idea is more to explore the kinds of things that stand in the way of small development.

Petty said he’s encouraged that the city had a high participation rate in Forward OP, and that modestly-priced housing made the visioning list. But he’s also aware that there may be negative push-back in a city that has seen some significant citizen protests of new development, including smaller-scale projects, in recent months.

In other communities Incremental has worked with, he said, “People like their large houses and their large yards and they don’t want to give them up. There’s a perception sometimes that when we’re talking about housing diversity that we’re trying to take that away from people. But that’s not what we’re trying to do,” Petty said. We’re trying to promote options that aren’t available today.”

“These projects don’t need to be feared and can even provide benefit for the community,” he said.

There are also some advantages to the small types of developments Petty mentioned. A redone block of duplexes is less of a shock to a neighborhood than the large apartment/retail buildings, he said. And with the right kind of city guidance, these projects are within the means of even small-scale and less experienced developers.

“I don’t think it’s simple. I don’t think it’s easy. But I do think if we’re committed to it and we don’t give up that we can achieve some success with it,” he said.