Shawnee’s new rules on the number of unrelated adults who can inhabit a single living space are unclear enough that one city councilmember suggested Monday that they need to be revisited and better explained.
“For me, I got this one wrong,” said Councilmember Jill Chalfie during the meeting’s final minutes.
The background: Chalfie was part of the unanimous vote in favor of the ordinance April 25. However, there is no indication that the rest of the council would be willing to take another look at the new regulation.
Chalfie’s remarks came after a week in which Shawnee drew national news and social media attention, much of it negative, over the new restrictions governing co-living arrangements.
Before Monday’s meeting, critics of the ban started a Change.org petition objecting to the new ordinance, which had more than 350 signatures.
About a half dozen opponents to the co-living ban stood outside Shawnee City Hall on Monday evening holding signs, and some also spoke at the meeting, asking the council to reconsider.
Opponents said the ordinance was not well-thought-out and that it would make it more difficult for people to afford a place to live in Shawnee, which has experienced high housing prices along with the rest of Johnson County.
What it means: Per the city’s own explanation of the ordinance:
“Co-Living group means a group of four (4) or more unrelated persons who are eighteen (18) or older living together in a dwelling unit which contains housekeeping facilities for only one family. If an adult person is unrelated to another adult person in the dwelling unit, unless they meet the definition of a family, all persons over the age of 18 shall be classified as unrelated for purposes of calculating a co-living group occupancy limit of three persons.”
Chalfie said she misunderstood that part of the ordinance.
Objections: Speakers at the meeting said the city failed to imagine all the various family and non-family living arrangements that could be affected.
“I don’t really think it’s clear. It’s really, really muddy. So our ask today is that the city council just put the ordinance back on the agenda to be re-discussed,” said Jae Moyer, who held a sign protesting the ordinance. “I’m really, really not sure whatsoever if the City Council is aware of what they’ve done. I hope not because if they did know what they’ve done, then, you know, I’d be very concerned for the people sitting on the city council.”
Some speakers said their own family circumstances could have ruled them out of Shawnee, had the ordinance been in effect earlier.
Christian Masters of Shawnee said he started his first job search while living with three unrelated adults at one of their parent’s houses. The council should have taken a more nuanced approach, he said.
Val French wondered if her family would have been considered illegally housed under the ordinance.
“It’s really confusing to me why this council made decisions that they made without considering all of those situations,” she said.
French called the ordinance “racist” and “classist”, characterizations that also came up last week in a Twitter post from the leader of local tenants rights group KC Tenants. The petition and speakers Monday night were not affiliated with that group.
“I will tell you, I do understand that we don’t really want poor people in Shawnee. We don’t really want people who aren’t fluent in Johnson County. I’m very aware of the classism and the racism that goes on in this county.,” French said.
Council response: But Council President Eric Jenkins disputed that characterization of the ordinance.
At the meeting, Jenkins read an email from Henry E. Lyons, president of the Olathe NAACP. The email was copied to mayors of other cities as well, Jenkins said.
“We support your efforts to look out for homeowners and tenants in your city. Whenever some people can’t come up with a logical or intelligent response to an issue they play the race card. Don’t let playing the race card intimidate you,” Jenkins said, quoting Lyons’ email.
Moyer, whose pronouns are they/them, said it would be more appropriate for the city to focus on the landlords, rather than to put the burden on renters.
That sentiment was echoed by former Shawnee Councilmember Lisa Larson-Bunnell, who suggested the ordinance be changed to limit leases, or limit the number of people by square footage or count related family members as a single renter.
‘A little messy’: Councilmembers have said they were trying to address a housing problem that is more well-known on the coasts and has begun to crop up in Johnson County.
Co-living arrangements allow investors who buy single family homes to then rent them out by rooms. The trend essentially turns a single-family home into an apartment with kitchen and other housekeeping facilities for one family shared by all.
In some cases, modifications skirt past safety and parking codes. Investment buying also drives up the price of homes, making it difficult for people of modest means to buy a first home, councilmembers said.
Chalfie said she thought she was voting to solve those problems. But she said she did not understand that one unrelated adult more than three could cause the group to be in violation.
“It’s a little messy,” she said, adding that the ordinance could have unintended consequences for different types of groups.
But other councilmembers said the ordinance — which was worked out over five public meetings — would be better understood with more communication to the public.
Existing living arrangements would be allowed to stand, said Councilmember Jacklynn Walters, adding that renters’ significant others would be allowed.
“We’re not going to demand documents showing people are married,” she said.
Jenkins said some news accounts describing the ordinance as “banning roommates” were inaccurate and inflammatory. The city has put out extensive information on the ordinance over the time it’s been discussed, he said.
“We really put a lot of information out there to let people know that a lot of these are erroneous claims, quite frankly,” Jenkins said. “I don’t have much interest in calling this back up again.”
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.