Johnson County considers next steps to address countywide housing inequities

Johnson County rent assistance

Without the willingness of Johnson County’s elected leadership to work toward equitable, attainable housing solutions and achieve buy-in from residents, the challenges for people trying to afford to live here will probably only grow worse over time.

That’s according to a report earlier this month to the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners, when county leaders received an overview of the results of a housing study and considered next steps for the county to take.

“To me, this is a shared responsibility,” said Julie Brewer, executive director of United Community Services of Johnson County, who led the discussion on April 8.

Brewer said cities in Johnson County should also be intentional about housing solutions, and employers should also recognize what is necessary for a ready and able workforce. Cities and the county can incentivize developments to build affordable housing, and incentivize businesses to pay a living wage so that middle- and lower-income individuals and families can afford to live in Johnson County.

“What does it do to the vitality of a community if we don’t have attainable housing solutions that are reflective of all the different wages?” said Julie Brewer, executive director of UCS. Above, a file photo of Brewer at a public meeting a few years ago.

But first, elected officials must be willing to plant the seed, and residents must be willing to be vocal and active about the county’s future, Brewer added.

Several county commissioners agreed that the county should take an active role in housing solutions, but that government cannot be the solution to all of these challenges, especially in the area of Johnson County’s homeless population.

“While I agree that the board of county commissioners is not able to solve this whole problem, I do think we have the opportunity to show leadership and to be part of that conversation, to lead the way on it,” said Commissioner Janeé Hanzlick.

Commissioner Becky Fast said she hoped the county would take action instead of shelving the study, like the county did after the completion of a housing task force in 2008.

“In 2008, the report was just shelved; nothing happened,” Fast said. “But I will say the good news, what I see [is] there is will now at the city level.”

UCS, the county and its 19 cities, as well as several public and private partners, recently completed the Johnson County Municipalities Community Housing Study. The work of the study centered around the priority issue of safe, stable and attainable housing.

A Housing for All task force is reviewing the study results. Over the next few months, the task force will prepare toolkits for cities to use for a more active approach in residential development. Brewer said it will be challenging but necessary for cities to have intentional planning and active engagement in housing solutions.

Here are four actions that UCS recommended the county take as next steps after completion of the housing study.

Enhance public transit and transportation initiatives

The county should focus on enhancing public transit, especially, where possible, near future attainable housing developments. Above, a RideKC bus. File photo.

Transportation initiatives, particularly those in public transit, are a critical focus area for the county as it considers housing solutions, Brewer said.

“It’s fair to say that jurisdictions look to the county for leadership and partnership in transportation challenges and opportunities,” she added.

In particular, the county should look to develop public transit near attainable housing developments. That way, people with middle or lower incomes can access public transportation to and from work.

Addressing homelessness is high priority

Taking a lead role in developing a year-round response to serve those without shelter is an important next step toward addressing housing challenges, Brewer said. Above, a file photo of residents being served dinner at Project 1020, a temporary cold-weather shelter now closed for the season.

Johnson County lacks a year-round response to those experiencing homelessness. Only 155 beds are available for people without shelter, Brewer said. However, when taking out transitional housing, housing for victims of domestic violence and people with substance use or mental health issues, as well as seasonal cold-weather shelters, only 58 beds remain. None of those beds are available to single men without children.

Brewer urged the county to continue to be a leader in the issue around homelessness.

Several commissioners agreed that the county should take an active role in addressing homelessness, but many think government cannot be the sole solution.

Brewer said the county should “create pathways for responses to homelessness to succeed.” UCS hopes to see development of a housing crisis center with shelter space, case management and other services.

Develop a housing trust fund and other creative options

Some county commissioners have asked UCS to help the county look into creative solutions that haven’t been tried yet. One such option is development of a housing trust fund.

While no concrete plans for such a fund have been made yet, the fund would generally be supported by a mix of development fees, taxes and donations. Public-private partnerships on housing projects could also contribute to a housing trust fund.

Brewer said the city of Lawrence, Kansas, repurposed a transportation tax into a housing trust fund tax, essentially prolonging that tax for a different reason. Those public dollars support attainable housing efforts in the city.

Hanzlick said she would like to explore how the county can incentivize developers to build affordable housing solutions.

Willingness to work together and gain community buy-in

Community buy-in will be one of the biggest challenges facing elected officials who hope to address housing inequities in Johnson County. Apartments and high-density residential developments are one such option for attainable housing, yet single-family homeowners often oppose living next to such developments. Above, homeowners in Watercrest Landing in Lenexa came out in opposition to the higher-density apartments proposed between their subdivision and K-7 Highway. File photo.

The willingness of all stakeholders to work toward equitable housing solutions remains key to addressing the many and varied challenges facing cities and the county.

Brewer said elected officials must be willing to plant seeds today that may not bear fruit until after they are out of office.

“What does it do to the vitality of a community if we don’t have attainable housing solutions that are reflective of all the different wages?” Brewer said. “We learned in the pandemic that so much of our community staying open was reliant on what we called essential workers, and many of those essential workers would have barriers to finding affordability within our communities.”

Some county commissioners said community buy-in will be critical to any housing solutions — particularly because many single-family homeowners in Johnson County largely oppose living next to apartments and denser residential developments that could be more affordable.

“Density, it’s just not going to be on the table, because people are done with it,” said Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara, adding that she hopes governing bodies will look inward to see how to reduce impediments for the private sector to address housing challenges.

The county is planning to coordinate with planning officials across all Johnson County cities to take an in-depth review of the study, then possibly recommend actions for within their own jurisdictions. Commissioners Shirley Allenbrand, Fast and Hanzlick volunteered to serve on this new committee to meet with the cities’ planning departments.

Meanwhile, Brewer said UCS and other lead agencies are also developing templates at the regional level to scale up and have shared consistency around housing policy.

County Chairman Ed Eilert, who recommended the county coordinate with planning officials on next steps, said community buy-in will be central to any efforts that address housing challenges.

“To me, there are a lot of answers that are available that are not that difficult,” Eilert said. “The difficulty is in getting the communities to accept those. That’s the big challenge. That’s where it’s been. That’s where it is. That’s where it always will be.”