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Housing Study: For Low-Income Residents, Kansas City Is Far From Affordable

Kevin Collison
KCUR 89.3
A year-long study of housing in Kansas City finds that affordable options for low-income residents are scarce. It suggests a host of new policies aimed and diversifying the housing stock across the city.

Kansas City, Missouri, has long prided itself as an affordable place to live. But a new study commissioned by the city paints a different picture.

The study, commissioned a year ago by the city council, shows that affordable housing options exist for people of high or moderate incomes. But for people who make less than $30,000 a year, options are scarce. 

Jeff Williams, director of City Planning and Development and one of the authors of the study, said those people are disproportionately affected by the undersupply of affordable housing stock. Williams presented the study results to the city’s housing committee Thursday.

“Which means they’re spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs,” Williams said.

Credit Kansas City, Missouri
The study found that a majority of people who make less than $35,000 spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent.

Williams said that cost burden is made worse by high energy and utility costs.

Many of the most distressed areas of the housing market are clustered east of Troost Avenue and south of the Missouri River. Those areas have seen sharp declines in population, leaving behind vacant lots, neglected structures and plunging real estate values.

The report suggests a host of ambitious housing policies — more than 200 action items in all — aimed at increasing the stock of affordable housing, promoting mixed-income development and helping people purchase and maintain their homes.

Create or preserve 5,000 new homes

One of the biggest goals suggested by the study is to create or preserve 5,000 single- or multi-family units over the next five years. The aim is to increase population density in targeted neighborhood areas and to maintain what affordable homes already exist.

That would be bolstered, in part, by the creation of a $75 million housing development trust fund that would provide support for developers, homeowners and small rehabbers.

Kansas City currently funds many of its low-income housing programs by drawing on state and federal support. Williams argues the city can’t rely on that funding.

Although the report does not identify where the money would come from, an ordinance prepared by Councilman Quinton Lucas would fund it initially by increasing the city’s business use tax on out-of-state purchases of more than $2,000. Lucas also said revenue from a 1/8-cent sales tax for development in the city’s core could be used.

Targeted incentives

John Wood, head of Neighborhood and Housing Services, said the city needs to take a look at how the city awards incentives to developers.

“There are some folks who like incentives, some who don’t like them as much, but let’s talk about what’s appropriate for the particular case,” Wood said.

One option would be to require developers receiving city incentives to set aside at least 15 percent of units as affordable units.

The proposal stems, in part, from council discussions when the developer of the Three Light apartment building downtown was seeking incentives. Representatives from the luxury high rise had suggested that units costing up to $2,100 a month should be classified as affordable. 

The council eventually approved the incentives because not doing so would have breached a previously agreed-upon contract.

Following that debate, city officials voted to define “affordable” for incentivized projects at around $1,100 per month.

The report also suggests streamlining the process of getting building and zoning permits.

Next steps

Lucas, who chairs the housing committee, has prepared a suite of ordinances co-sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner aimed at achieving these goals. The proposals will be discussed in coming weeks after more outreach and community input.

Lucas, who is running for mayor, said he sees this as a sea change for the city.

“For decades … much of our housing policy has been ‘Let’s take the money from HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), give it to certain low-income sources and consider our job done,” Lucas tells KCUR.

He said the city is beginning to realize that housing factors into conversations about transportation, economic development and crime.

Alissia Canady, another mayoral candidate, said she supports several of the ideas in the report. But she urged her colleagues to look into strengthening existing housing policies rather than simply creating new ones.

“Our goal is for us to be able to increase the number of affordable units, not create bureaucracies and burdens on those that are providing those opportunities,” Canady said.

Rental property owners who testified before the council echoed that sentiment. They say the city has so many regulations already that it’s hard for them to keep their units in compliance.

Stacy Johnson-Cosby, a realtor and property owner in south Kansas City, urged the committee to include landlords in the conversation. Johnson-Cosby is running for the city council.

“This is our life, this is our area of expertise, let us use it for the benefit of our city,” Johnson-Cosby said.

The committee took no action on the report or the proposed ordinances. A housing task force that helped craft the report will continue meeting with stakeholders and another public hearing is scheduled for Sept. 26.

Lucas hopes to the council will vote on the ordinances in December.

Lisa Rodriguez is a reporter and the afternoon newscaster for KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @larodrig.

Slow news days are a thing of the past. As KCUR’s news director, I want to cut through the noise, provide context to the headlines, and give you news you can use in your daily life – information that will empower you to make informed decisions about your neighborhood, your city and the region. Email me at lisa@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @larodrig.
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