Housing study finds Johnson County real estate market remains unaffordable for many

Johnson County rent assistance

The Johnson County Health Equity Network has released the results of the Johnson County Municipalities Community Housing Study, a months-long project to identify existing housing options and needs within the community. File photo.

While communities across Johnson County enjoy high growth as attractive places to live, residents often face limited options in the housing market that are attainable for raising a family and aging in place.

That’s according to the results of a county-wide housing study, which was released and published earlier this month.

The Johnson County Municipalities Community Housing Study is a months-long endeavor by the Johnson County Health Equity Network, a collaboration that comprises the county and 19 cities, along with numerous private groups and organizations.

United Community Services of Johnson County, a local nonprofit facilitating the study, published the 319-page report on its website. The study can be viewed here.

“The housing study is a culmination of this work,” said Julie Brewer, executive director of United Community Services of Johnson County. “It’s a marathon. So we have hit an important mile marker that is fueling the energy for the rest of the race.”

How to address NIMBYism and identify the bigger picture

The study concludes that, time and again, the concept of “Not In My Back Yard,” or NIMBYism, manifests itself as multi-family and apartment proposals face pushback from neighboring single-family homeowners in Johnson County.

Residents often rise up in opposition against apartment plans, basing their concerns around the fear that neighboring projects will decrease their own homes’ property values.

The Shawnee City Council rejected an apartments proposal for the downtown area after dozens of neighboring homeowners voiced their opposition. Above, a rendering of preliminary plans for the site. Image credit NSPJ Architects.

“There’s a misnomer that if I have a higher-density multi-family next to a single-family development, that automatically means my single-family development’s going to decrease in valuation,” Brewer said.

“There’s research out there that actually shows that it does not impact and oftentimes increases. Why? Because having a little bit more density in a geographic area might draw other amenities that couldn’t be there before because they wouldn’t have enough traffic to support that business, be it a coffee shop, be it a bookstore.”

The study identifies two opportunities for community partners to address so-called NIMBYism:

  1. Develop a network of housing advocates who will publicly support housing projects and understand the needs for attainable, affordable, accessible housing stock.
  2. Develop a housing “factbook” as a tool for cities and developers to “dispel myths” around housing. This work is intended to connect the vision of each city’s comprehensive plan to its residents.

Preserve existing homes to keep costs down

As Johnson County continues to be an attractive place to live and do business, costs to build continue to increase. Meanwhile, the need for affordable, attainable housing increases, and renters are getting priced out of the market.

“Land is not cheap in Johnson County,” Brewer said, noting that developers sometimes pay up to 25% of their project in upfront costs simply to make a site ready to build. Plus, building permits vary in costs across cities.

Instead, community partners have an opportunity to preserve and rehabilitate the current stock of attainable housing. In some older communities, this presents a challenge, as homeowners in Prairie Village have seen a teardown-rebuild trend, for example.

Nonetheless, preserving the existing single-family homes can help keep costs down, especially for homes priced under $250,000, according to the study. Grants for minor home repairs (like these ones in Merriam) can facilitate cost savings for homeowners.

‘Missing Middle housing’ prevents aging in place

Johnson County has a lack of housing stock for what the study termed as “Missing Middle housing.”

These types of options are mid-size and good for first-time homebuyers, renters and empty nesters looking to downsize. In general, “Missing Middle” housing would include duplexes, townhomes, and small- and mid-size apartments.

“What do we lose when people who work in our community have to continue to live further and further away from our community and don’t make our community home? We lose a lot,” said Julie Brewer, pictured above at a Human Services Summit a few years ago. File photo.

RDG Planning and Design, the organization behind much of the data for the study, identified this lack of housing options as a challenge facing local communities.

“You have households who could move up to that next step in housing, but because of lack of housing stock in that next step, they stay where they’re at,” Brewer said. “When they stay where they’re at, then they take up the housing that somebody who’s at a lower income level could have moved into. It’s like dominos, a funnel, that gets stuck along the pipeline.”

Brewer said part of the challenge moving forward is to ensure availability of attainable options along the continuum of housing. Cities could benefit from creating space for diverse housing stock, thus allowing residents to age in place.

“If we do nothing, what’ll happen?” Brewer said. “What do we lose when people who work in our community have to continue to live further and further away from our community and don’t make our community home? We lose a lot.”

Next steps

The partners behind the study have launched a Housing for All Task Force to use the study’s findings to identify and develop ways to address housing issues in Johnson County.

The task force, which comprises about 200 people from across the county, first met Feb. 10.

Brewer said the task force may roll out its recommendations for cities and community partners to address housing issues sometime in May.

Kristy Baughman, director of education and planning of United Community Services of Johnson County, said that after seeing the level of engagement throughout the housing study, she’s hopeful and optimistic about the work left to do.

“I think that Johnson County is an exceptional community, and they want to be an exceptional community,” Baughman said. “For us, that means leading the way on coming up with some housing solutions. And that is definitely the energy that I’ve felt throughout this work.

“There’s a deep interest in continuing to be exceptional and doing some really innovative work around housing solutions.”