Shawnee apartments may be attractive to Gen Z renters — but can they afford it?

A study by website RENTCafe found that smaller cities and suburbs are becoming more attractive places for young adults to rent. But Johnson County's recent housing study found that many young renters find themselves priced out of the housing market here. Above, Cole Johnson, a 20-year-old KU student, in his Shawnee apartment.

One recent online survey named Shawnee and Olathe as top cities in Kansas where Gen Z young adults want to rent, but that finding conflicts with a recent countywide housing study that showed young adults — among other groups — are increasingly more likely to be priced out of Johnson County’s housing market.

Meanwhile, cities and developers across the county are trying to meet increasing market demand by proposing and building more attainable housing options, like apartments, but such developments continue to face pushback from established residents who oppose living near that type of housing.

That quandary was underlined in a recent survey published by RENTCafe, a blog for apartments and rentals. The site conducted a nationwide study of rental trends for Gen Z young adults.

It looked at rental applications in cities of populations greater than 60,000 across the country. What the site found was that young adults born between 1997 and 2012 — who often referred to as Gen Z, or Zoomers — are becoming more likely to flock to small towns in the Midwest or other parts of the heartland, instead of moving to coastal areas or downtown areas in bigger cities.

The RENTCafe study found that Shawnee and Olathe were top cities to rent in Kansas. But the study excluded any cities with populations fewer than 60,000, effectively canceling out the rest of the cities in Johnson County.

All of that neatly describes cities in Johnson County, which comprises more than a dozen small towns, most with fewer than 60,000 residents, the exceptions being Overland Park, Olathe and Shawnee. (All other cities in the Shawnee Mission area were excluded from the study because their populations were less than 60,000).

“I think even pre-pandemic, we have started to see that less densely populated communities are having renaissance, so to speak, of younger people looking at other living alternatives than just flocking to the big cities,” said Julie Brewer, executive director of United Community Services of Johnson County, who offered anecdotal comments on her first look at RENTCafe’s study. “This is just a taste, just one of way of looking at what some of that data might be telling us. To me, one thing that I got out of the article is that we have a generation who doesn’t think the only route to success or happiness is through going to a large, urban area.”

Based on the RENTCafe study’s narrow sliver of considerations (such as the number of apartment applications made by Gen Z young adults), Shawnee is ranked fourth in Kansas, and Olathe is ranked fifth. The details are too segmented to capture rental trends in Overland Park in order to understand why the county’s largest city didn’t make the cut.

Nonetheless, smaller cities in Johnson County have made extensive efforts to create attractive spaces for young adults, launching mixed-use projects with walkable connections to entertainment, dining and other amenities. That’s yielded renewed attention along Johnson Drive in Mission, the revitalization of downtown Overland Park and the making of Lenexa City Center and the neighboring Sonoma Plaza.

One Zoomer’s story

Cole Johnson’s two-bedroom apartment. He and his sister rent in Shawnee for $935.

Any number of reasons could factor into a Zoomer’s decision to rent in Shawnee.

Cole Johnson, a 20-year-old University of Kansas student, rents an apartment in Shawnee with his sister. He said their decision was based on a simple desire to move out of his parents’ house in Lenexa and find a good place to rent at the right price that’s close enough to Lawrence.

So, he and his sister rent a two-bedroom apartment at The Greens at Shawnee for $935.

Johnson, who grew up in Florida, has another theory about his decision that doesn’t necessarily apply to his entire generation: he enjoys staying at home and having a nice space. He’s less interested in being in a large city.

“I think for me, and not Gen Z as a whole, there’s a bit less of a focus on night life, party life, or whatever, and just doing your thing at home, having your own nice place is a bigger focus,” he added.

Johnson said after moving here with his family, he fell in love with Kansas — the history, the culture. Plus, he enjoy the Midwest and the sense of community here.

“The heartland as a whole, we’re known for being kind or good people, and I have found that to be mostly very true,” Johnson said. “It’s a hidden gem. So many people focus on big coastal cities, but there are so many little places within the Midwest that have a lot of character.”

‘A disconnect’ between housing stock and affordability

A countywide housing study found a disconnect between higher-end apartments and the ability of young adults to afford the rent. Above, The Greens at Shawnee, which one Zoomer said was a good price for the amenities.

Regardless of the reasons for wanting to live here, RENTCafe’s study gives a taste of what’s to come for small towns and suburbs that may want to attract young adults coming onto the housing market for the first time.

But while renting here might be desirable for members of Gen Z, is it attainable? Results from the most recent countywide housing study indicate that it probably isn’t.

The Johnson County Municipalities Community Housing Study, a months-long endeavor by the Johnson County Health Equity Network, identified shortcomings in the county’s housing market, especially in terms of affordability and attainability.

The study defined attainable housing as “any housing that is not financially burdensome to a household in a specific income range.” Financially burdensome, according to the study, means that housing expenses exceed 30% of household income.

“There’s going to be a disconnect between the product that’s being developed and the audience you think you’re developing it for and who can actually live there,” said Julie Brewer, executive director of UCS. Above, a file photo of Brewer at a summit.

Brewer, whose organization facilitated the study, said the study identified an influx of higher-rent apartment construction going on around Johnson County that was not in the affordable range for first-time renters or new members in the job market.

“There’s going to be a disconnect between the product that’s being developed and the audience you think you’re developing it for and who can actually live there,” Brewer said.

In fact, the study found a disconnect between the products being built and priced and the prices that first-time renters or recent graduates looking for their first job could actually afford.

Anecdotally, the housing study made the following conclusions:

  • Households making less than $50,000 who rent have more difficulty finding attainable housing options.
  • Regardless of housing type, costs to rent or purchase are, for the most part, rising across much of Johnson County.
  • Shawnee, among other cities, is becoming more cost burdensome for renters.
  • Shawnee has limited multi-family construction in the past 10 years.

Pushback in Shawnee on multi-family housing

Some apartment projects have faced opposition in Shawnee. Above, a rendering of the 5700 King Apartments that had been proposed for the former site of the Wonderscope Children’s Museum. The city council rejected the project last fall. File photo.

Nearly every city across Johnson County has faced tension between single-family homeowners and developers bringing in apartment projects. That’s the case in Shawnee, where have faced increased opposition from city leaders and residents who resist multi-family projects.

In the past two years, Shawnee city leaders have rejected multiple multi-family projects in downtown and on the western side of the city, and given particular scrutiny toward any projects requesting public dollars to finance them.

Furthermore, participants in a survey described in the county’s housing study said they felt the housing supply in Shawnee fails to meet the needs of single professionals or students.

“A lot of high end development is still being brought forward even when almost all multi-family development gets opposition from neighbors,” read a report in the housing study. “Uncertainty for development approvals in Shawnee is high compared to other cities and is starting to deter developers from wanting to build in the city.”

Nonetheless, Shawnee city leaders have acknowledged the need for multi-family housing in order to spur growth in their city.

For her part, Brewer says if Gen Z young adults want to live here, cities in Johnson County should find ways to make renting here more affordable, if they want to continue growing their communities

“Are we making sure that we can meet their needs in affordability? Because if we don’t, no matter how beautifully you can build it, if they can’t afford to live here, they won’t,” she said.