A recent Shawnee City Council decision to ban “co-living” arrangements has drawn accusations of classism, racism and a callous disregard for the people struggling to afford homes and apartments in Johnson County.
Since it was approved unanimously a week ago, Shawnee’s decision has made news well beyond the Kansas City metro, with one national publication saying the city had “effectively [made] roommates illegal.”
The new ordinance has also been called out by KC Tenants, a local tenants rights group whose director Tara Raghuveer evoked Johnson County’s history of redlining and tweeted that groups of adults living together in an apartment or house is one of the few affordable options for lower-income people in the area.
But Shawnee councilmembers pushed back forcefully this week, saying that, in fact, they’ve struck a blow to keep home prices from ballooning even faster than they have already. They said their motives for passing the co-living restrictions have been misrepresented.
Councilmember Eric Jenkins noted that the ordinance has been in the works for weeks and has been the subject of five open meetings.
“We didn’t hear one negative thing [before it was passed],” he said.
Here are answers to some questions you may have about Shawnee’s new co-living ordinance:
What does the ordinance say?
The ordinance bans renting to four or more people who are all unrelated. For example, four former college friends unrelated by blood, marriage, adoption or guardianship could not rent together. Two or three unrelated roommates would still be allowed.
Homeowners can still rent a property, but only to three or fewer unrelated individuals.
The ordinance applies in all zoning districts of Shawnee, even duplex and apartment high rise-zoned areas. Enforcement will be on a complaint basis.
What brought this about?
“Co-living” is a new real estate wrinkle more frequently seen on the coasts that has begun to make its way to Johnson County only recently. It is not the same as a typical roommate setup.
With co-living, a home may be bought by an investor who then reconfigures the inside, putting separate locks on bedrooms but perhaps leaving some common space.
The rooms are then rented individually to people who may or may not already know each other. Common areas of the home are then shared among the renters.
Councilmember Jacklynn Walters recently began to hear complaints about remodeling work on two properties in her ward, which runs from Pflumm Road to K-7 Highway, south of Shawnee Mission Parkway.
After talking to people in the real estate business, she said, she learned that there is substantial interest in “co-living” arrangements in Johnson County.
She said she knew of one seller who refused to sell to a home investment company for that reason.
The trend is troubling for several reasons, in Walters’s opinion.
In some cases, the interior is segmented into as many smaller rooms as possible, changing the character of the house and neighborhood. The house is still in a single-family neighborhood, for example, even though it has essentially become an apartment building.
Areas zoned for apartments also have different requirements for such things as parking.
Does co-living help people find affordable places to live?
Sky-high home prices and rental rates in Johnson County have been exacerbated since the pandemic began and local some city councils have sought to try to make housing more affordable.
A recent United Community Services of Johnson County study showed the problem is particularly acute in Shawnee, with just under half of renters paying about a third of their monthly income toward housing.
After the council approved its new ordinance, Raghuveer tweeted her disappointment, saying the city had “banned roommates.” She called the co-living restrictions “cruel” and “violent” to the city’s most vulnerable.
“Crucial context,” she wrote, “Shawnee is in Johnson County, the wealthiest county in Kansas. Poor people and tenants are already invisibilized in places like this. Policies like the one passed this week make these communities even more hostile to non-homeowners,” she wrote.
But Walters said co-living also comes at a price for people struggling with high housing costs.
In most cases, she said, investors are able to outbid other potential buyers, driving up the cost of homes for everyone. That hits particularly hard for people looking to break into home ownership at a time when starter homes aren’t being built any more, she said.
“We would really like to see families be able to buy a home in Shawnee and be able to make it that lifelong investment that so many in Shawnee have done and want to continue to do,” she said.
The practice can also be harmful to people who have bought their homes with the expectation of the type of neighborhood they’ll be living in, said Jenkins.
Turning former single-family homes into apartments can upend those norms, he said.
“They made that investment assured by being in (a single-family zoning district) that those kinds of uses are not allowed. That’s what zoning is about,” Jenkins said.
Is Shawnee’s co-living ban racist?
Raghuveer’s Twitter thread also recalled restrictive covenant policies created and promoted by J.C. Nichols more than a century ago that aimed to keep the suburbs white-only and propelled the modern growth of Johnson County.
“With the co-living ban, Shawnee’s City Council has taken a bizarre step in the direction of re-enforcing this dark legacy in Johnson County,” she said.
The Post reached out to Raghuveer to explain her comments further but had yet to hear back as of Tuesday.
But Shawnee councilmembers disputed the idea that the ban has a racial element.
“I understand that we have a lot of racial tension and division within the nation as a whole,” Walters said. “I can speak on behalf of myself and just say that that is not what we would intend or want to see happen within our community.
“We welcome anyone. I don’t care the color of their skin. This is not targeting any individual on any characteristic that they may have. I guess you could say that it’s truly, truly just wanting to protect and preserve those neighborhoods and hopefully helping to push back on the demand, at least within Shawnee, where the home values won’t be pushed even higher because of the investors coming in.”
“The fact of the matter is, there were no racial undertones at all and no socio-economic overtones either,” he said. “This was a response to a burgeoning new real estate area.”
Meanwhile, what about affordable housing?
The Shawnee council, like others, has grappled with how to make housing more affordable.
Welcoming a diverse population is a stated goal on the vision plans of more than one Johnson County city.
But how to do that is a problem that still dogs elected leaders. Jenkins and Walters both expressed frustration about a city’s limited ability to respond to the issue.
“Housing is expensive. Who caused that problem? Not the cities,” Jenkins said.
The high prices have more to do with the increasing fuel costs, and other upward pressures on the economy, he said.
“We’re being handed a bag of worms,” and being asked to create lower-income housing, he continued. “How am I going to do that?”
Meanwhile, he said, “developers don’t care about social issues. They just want to make more money.”
The co-living trend is something corporations are doing to “try and screw up the housing market,” he said.
Some potential renters, as a result, may have to face the fact that an area has gotten too expensive for them, he said.
Roxie Hammill is a freelance journalist who reports frequently for the Post and other Kansas City area publications. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.