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Councilwoman Calls Kansas City's First Step On Affordable Housing In 2021 'Minimal'

Workers attach a beam to the framework of apartments being constructed at Berkley Riverfront. The construction is part of a Port KC program that requires projects include a minimum of 15 percent of units designated as affordable at 70 percent of area median income.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Workers attach a beam to the framework of apartments being constructed at Berkley Riverfront.

The Kansas City Council considered an affordable housing requirement for developers several years ago, but the measure failed. Supporters are trying again.

Kansas City Councilwoman Melissa Robinson works with a national advocacy network seeking affordable housing solutions, and she knows Kansas City lags some other cities in funding and progress.

There’s one rudimentary action she says Kansas City needs to take: require residential projects seeking economic incentives to provide a minimum number of affordable units.

“I believe this effort is the very basic minimal policy decision we can make,” said Robinson, who is sponsoring the ordinance with Mayor Quinton Lucas. “Because of the housing crisis that Kansas City is in specifically, we have to make sure there are units available for everyone.”

Lucas agrees.

“I think we need to get to a point where an incentive isn’t an automatic right,” he told KCUR, adding that developers getting incentives should help with Kansas City’s affordable housing shortage.

Consideration of economic incentives for the Three Light luxury apartments prompted a heated debate about affordable housing in Kansas City back in 2018.
Rendering / Cordish
Consideration of economic incentives for the Three Light luxury apartments prompted a heated debate about affordable housing in Kansas City back in 2018.

The affordable housing debate boiled over in 2018, when Kansas Cityagreed to subsidize the luxury Three Light apartment project downtown, where rents were slated to be about $1,600 per month.

The City Council subsequentlyadopted an ordinance defining “affordable”as about $1,100 per month.

Lucas says that’s still too high for many families making less than $45,000 per year.

“There are a lot of people who are at that level, who are working hard each day, and we should not be incentivizing projects where there aren’t opportunities for people like that,” he said.

The latest proposal would require that multi-family residential projects seeking incentives have at least 10% of those units be affordable, with monthly rents $1,000 or less, and 10% be extremely affordable, about $500 to $700 per month depending on family income and apartment size.

Developers who can’t achieve that housing set-aside would make a payment in lieu of units to the city’s Housing Trust Fund.

The ordinance is scheduled for committee discussion Jan. 13 but isn’t sure to pass. A similar proposal from Lucas failed in 2019.

A man walks past the revolving door entrance to the currently shuttered Midland Building at 13th and Baltimore where the Cordish Company plans to remodel the office space as an affordable housing project.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Cordish Company agreed to build 100 affordable units in the Midland Building at 13th and Baltimore in exchange for subsidies on the parking garage for its luxury Three Light high-rise.

Support for set-aside

At a Dec. 16 council committee hearing, several advocates strongly endorsed the new set-aside ordinance. Geoff Jolley, executive director of the Local Initiatives Support Corp., said tens of thousands of families throughout Kansas City are housing cost burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income for housing.

“So the need is dire,” he said. “Frankly I think our community has a moral obligation to address these inequities…A set-aside ordinance is the first of many steps that are needed.”

Amanda Wilson, also with LISC, noted many other cities already have such requirements, with positive results.

“The set-aside ordinance will establish a clear and predictable standard for community benefits when a project realizes these public subsidies and incentives,” she said.

Councilman Dan Fowler agrees the city has a critical affordable housing need, and he is weighing his vote on the proposal. But he worries the requirement will discourage some developers from building in Kansas City, by reducing their return on investment, and they’ll instead go to neighboring cities.

“My concern is that you don’t want to do something that’s going to inhibit people from building stuff,” he said.

To encourage more affordable housing, he suggests reducing red tape and speeding up the city’s permitting process. He also supports the city seeking more federal and state funding for affordable housing.

Ambitious housing goal

In 2018, Kansas City adopted a housing policywith a goal of creating or preserving about 5,000 affordable units by 2023.

The city still has a long way to go. The Neighborhoods and Housing Department counts 404 affordable rental units built or created so far and 956 homes preserved with repairs, according to Assistant City Manager John Wood.

According to Wood, the Central City Economic Development Sales Tax Board has approved funding to assist 479 additional units, which are not yet built.

One big component of the city’s affordable housing effort has been the Paseo Gateway Initiative — but that was only accomplished with a $30 million federal grant in 2016.

The grant supports the creation of about 380 mixed-income units by the end of 2022.

A playground is sandwiched between apartment buildings at Quinlan Place apartments in the Paseo Gateway district. Market-rate and affordable-rate units are mixed with former Chouteau Court residents who pay a percentage of their income for rent.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
A playground is sandwiched between apartment buildings at Quinlan Place apartments in Kansas City's historic Northeast neighborhood. The development, completed in 2020, offers market-rate and affordable units.

Highlights include the 38-unit Pendleton ArtsBlock, 2300 Independence Ave., completed in 2019 and the 57-unit Quinlan Place, 1507 E. 8th St. and the 22-unit Quinlan Row, 804 Woodland Ave., completed in 2020.

Another development agency, Port KC, is voluntarily supporting more affordability. It now has a policy that all future projects should include at least 15% affordable units, according to CEO Jon Stephens.

The first project under that policy is the $60 million CORE Apartments, being developed by NorthPoint in the Berkley Riverfront area, with 54 units designated affordable. Stephens said Port KC is also pushing for more affordable units in a potential project at 5th and Main Streets.

Kansas City lags others in affordable housing efforts

Still, Robinson says more aggressive action is needed. Through her work with the Grounded Solutions Network, she’s learned that other cities like Denver, Minneapolis, Durham and Charlotte have multimillion-dollar affordable housing trust funds.

The money comes from a variety of property taxes, development fees and other revenues such as marijuana sales taxes. Kansas City has established a Housing Trust Fund, but it has no significant local revenue source, and a tax increase is a tough sell.

“One of the things I’ve learned is Kansas City is definitely behind the times,” Robinson said, “as it relates to how other jurisdictions that are similar to us ensure their cities remain livable for everyone.”

She says the set-aside requirement is the least the city can do.

“If you want to use your own money to do luxury, that’s fine,” she said. “But once you start to dip into public resources, there has to be a public benefit.”

Lynn Horsley is a freelance writer in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley.
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