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Kansas City eases affordable housing rules, sparking anger by tenant group

People seated in a room holding signs that read "Listen to the people."
Celisa Calacal
/
KCUR 89.3
Dozens of KC Tenants members packed the Kansas City Council chambers on Thursday to oppose an ordinance that would ease affordable housing requirements for developers.

KC Tenants disrupted the council meeting Thursday afternoon in protest of the ordinance.

Despite strong opposition from housing advocates, the Kansas City Council on Thursday approved an ordinance relaxing affordable housing requirements for developers.

The ordinance, which passed 9-4, amends the city’s affordable housing set-aside policy and changes the definition of who qualifies for affordable housing.

Under the policy, which was championed by Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, developers seeking tax incentives for residential development must make 20% of their units affordable for households at or below 60% of the median family income.

By those metrics, a one-bedroom apartment would cost nearly $1,200. A two-bedroom apartment would cost about $1,300.

Dozens of KC Tenants members packed the council’s chambers to oppose the ordinance. Leaders of the tenants union complained that it puts affordable housing out of reach for the city’s low-income and working class renters.

“I cannot afford $1,200 for a place to stay,” Kaylove Edwards, a KC Tenants leader, said at a committee meeting on Wednesday. “And I very reasonably need two bedrooms, not one, for me and my two kids.”

After the ordinance passed, KC Tenants erupted with chants of “The rent, the rent, the rent is too damn high” and “Mayor Lucas, you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side.”

The chanting continued for several minutes, disrupting the council meeting and effectively ending it. KC Tenants leader Tiana Caldwell was arrested.

The ordinance was opposed by council members Andrea Bough, Eric Bunch, Brandon Ellington and Heather Hall.

"When we talk about our cashiers, our service workers, our daycare workers and all that other good stuff, these are folks that aren't going to be able to afford this,” Ellington, Ellington, who represents the 3rd District-at-Large, said.

3rd District Councilwoman Melissa Robinson supported the ordinance, arguing it addresses the decline in affordable housing.

“Yes, this is not affordability for everyone, but it's affordability for some people, especially middle class people,” she said.

The city’s definition of affordability is based on the federal median family income for the Kansas City metropolitan area, which includes counties in Missouri and Kansas and takes into account the incomes of both renters and homeowners. KC Tenants says the city should only focus on renter income in Kansas City, Missouri, to come up with a more accurate definition of affordability.

The set-aside ordinance is part of a larger legislative package proposed by Lucas to spur more affordable housing. The council approved another one of those ordinances, which asks voters to approve $175 million in bonds, with $50 million going to the Housing Trust Fund.

Two ordinances, one that would regulate accessory dwelling units and another that would change the city’s tax incentive policies, were held in committee.

The council first passed a housing set-aside policy in 2020 that went into effect last year. That policy required developers to make 10% of their units available for households earning 70% of the median family income and make another 10% available for “extremely low-income households” earning 30% of the median family income.

The new policy eases those rules and removes the requirement that developers seeking tax incentives must make some units affordable for extremely low-income households.

6th District-at-Large Councilwoman Andrea Bough, who voted “no,” said she was concerned about not making units affordable for low-income residents.

“We're not being proactive in searching for opportunities at that lower level,” she said. “So I guess my question is, what are we doing to ensure that we are filling that void in the extremely affordable?”

Kathleen Pointer, senior policy strategist with Kansas City Public Schools, said the city’s affordability threshold was out of reach for district teachers.

“KCPS teachers have some of the highest starting first-year salaries in the metro, and $1,200 for a one bedroom is unaffordable to them, as it is for many city workers,” she said.

Lucas has said changing the affordability threshold is necessary because the city’s current set-aside policies have not led to any applications from developers since it went into effect last year.

2nd District Councilman Dan Fowler agreed, saying at Wednesday's committee hearing that the policy needs to be changed and that developers are in the business to make money.

“They're not going to make any money doing what we're doing,” he said. “And so we’ve got to do something different.”

But some critics said changing the policy now was premature.

Critics pointed out that developers submitted 31 applications for incentives before the set-aside policy went into effect and don’t have a need to submit more incentive applications because they are already occupied with those projects.

“We are prematurely reviewing an ordinance that hasn't even had the time to take effect yet,” said Geoff Jolley, executive director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation Kansas City.

Jolley noted that those same developers have not submitted applications to the city’s Housing Trust Fund, which recently awarded nearly $8 million to affordable housing projects, a sign that some developers don’t want to use that tool.

“We have created the mechanism and they don't want to use it,” he said. “We teach our children, you don't get a reward until you do what you need to do, right? Why are we teaching our children lessons that we are not enforcing upon our development community?”

As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives.
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